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Building a True Pipeline for Young Women in Tech - at Scale and with Urgency

Ruthe Farmer is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to expand opportunities for young learners from communities historically underserved or underrepresented in tech fields.

Ruthe Farmer

Ruthe Farmer is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to expand opportunities for young learners from communities historically underserved or underrepresented in tech fields.

“It is really great to be recognized for something that I love and work hard at. It can be difficult sometimes being the only girl in the technology department at my small school. Meeting other girls who share my interests is great and this award gives me confidence in my ability to succeed in a field that I love so much. Thank you.” ~ NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing Recipient

Notes like this give me energy. Hearing from a young woman that your work has had an impact on her life is priceless.  Fortunately for me, notes like this are pretty frequent of late. But, they are also eerily consistent.  Two salient bits in this short statement and so many others like it perfectly illuminate both the challenge and the solution for young women in technology – recognition and community.

In the technology education space we talk a lot about the education and workforce talent “pipeline” and all the “leaks” along the way that contribute to the attrition of women. I believe this analogy is incorrect. A pipeline implies that the system is designed as a conduit, meaning the basic purpose of flow is still happening, and that though the leaks diminish the overall output and efficiency of the system – it is nonetheless a linear system. The experience for girls in technology is a lot more like an obstacle course. There are pitfalls, like attending a school that doesn’t offer any meaningful computer science courses (the bulk of U.S. schools don’t) or growing up in a state where computer science and IT courses don’t count (only 10 U.S. States count computer science as satisfying a math or science graduation requirement).  Then, obstacles like walking into a tech class as a freshman and being the only girl, non-inclusive curriculum, and even overt incidences of bias. Top that off with a consistent headwind of negative stereotypes about technology fields and the people in them. It is a wonder any young woman survives this educational equivalent of “wipeout.”  Consequently, those that make it through exemplify a tremendous amount of determination and passion.

I’ve been working on tech inclusion since 2001.  In fact, I’ve been at this long enough to see girls participating in a Robotics Day Camp at 12 grow up to become interns at top tech companies, graduate college, and generally make me proud. When I joined Girl Scouts I jumped at the chance to pilot an Intel sponsored engineering program for girls and appointed myself the council tech/engineering specialist (I resisted the term STEM and still do).  I’ve implemented numerous related programs: Lego Robotics, Engineering Badge Day, E-Week, Design & Discovery, and Zoom into Engineering, and more. I’ve seen countless girls light up at solving a challenge or inventing a solution all their own.  For many of them it is the first time they’ve had any exposure to the idea that they can be innovators and creators.

All of these efforts are inspiring, energizing, and important. There are many wonderful bright spots of innovation taking place all over the country.  It absolutely takes an entire ecosystem of interventions and opportunities to yield a successful young woman in tech. But it isn’t enough… by a long shot.  If you zero in on computing and IT, the participation of women and girls actually declined 64% from 2000 to 2011. Despite all our collective efforts, today young women only make up 18% of degree recipients in computer and information sciences, though they are the overwhelming majority of college students. I cannot stress the urgency of this enough. Women are being left out of the innovation economy, becoming consumers rather than creators, and their voices and minds are missing from the technology design table.

So back to those salient bits – recognition and community – and how we hope to solve this dilemma.  In 2004 NCWIT was founded to build a national change leader network to aggressively address the lack of girls and women in computing. Over 450 organizations are now part of this network.  I joined the effort in 2005, as a Girl Scouts of the USA representative, and continued in 2008, as an NCWIT staff member. In 2009, I began scaling up Aspirations in Computing and building the infrastructure of a national talent development pipeline solution for young women in technology (yes, I said pipeline!). It is simple, replicable and scalable – leveraging the shared mission of the 450 members in the NCWIT network to create big impact quickly and cost effectively. First, we publicly recognize young women aspiring in technology – affirming that they are on the right track, needed in the field, and possess the potential to succeed. We’re creating that experience of having a trusted outside source acknowledge and encourage a student for something they do well - for more than 1000 girls nationwide in 2013 alone. Second, we invite them into a national community of like-minded peers, supporters, and sponsors. We constantly bombard them with opportunities to develop their skills, learn more, explore, and grow. And, we stick with them. Aspirations in Computing offers a long-term network of support and encouragement for young women in technology to help transform the obstacle course into a true pipeline.

To date we’ve publicly recognized more than 2,200 young women and built a national database of more than 11,000 girls that self-identify as technical. The program has scaled to 54 sites nationwide in just five years and is on track to induct 1,500 new high school girls in 2014 (and even more each year thereafter). We are currently piloting AspireIT, a middle school ‘pay it forward’ outreach program with the potential to scale to 10,000 girls per year, further widening the funnel of girls entering in the pipeline. Evaluation and anecdotal data show that the Aspirations in Computing program works. Participants consistently report greater confidence in their technical abilities, increased enthusiasm about computing, and greater awareness of the career opportunities available to them. The heartwarming notes we receive from girls tell the same story. We are excited. The future is bright and it seems the tides are turning. 

Receiving the Champions of Change recognition for this work is a tremendous honor and I am proud to share it with my colleagues, the over 1,400 Aspirations in Computing volunteers nationwide, over 450 NCWIT member organizations, and of course our “NCWIT girls.”  I have enjoyed watching them achieve and look forward to the new wave of innovation this talented group of young women will create.

Ruthe Farmer is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT).