Global Insight On Drawing Girls To Tech

Tell Me More looks at strategies being used to encourage more young women to enter tech fields in the US, and what the international community is doing differently — for better and worse.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This March, we are talking about women in tech. This is how we decided to observe Women's History Month. We're doing all kinds of thing all of this month on Twitter. Innovators from around the world are tweeting a day in their lives using the hashtag #NPRWIT. We are also speaking with trailblazers about the new ideas they're bringing to tech. And we're talking with people who are trying to encourage more women and girls to enter tech fields. Today, we wanted to talk about how women can be encouraged to get into engineering and computer science fields in the U.S. and globally.

It turns out that women received about 57.4 percent of Bachelor's degrees in 2010 - this in the U.S. - but they received only 18.4 percent of the engineering Bachelor's degrees - that according to the American Society for Engineering Education. The situation around the world is different. The Guardian recently reported that just 8 percent of engineers are women in England, but that compares to 15 percent in Germany, 25 percent in Sweden and 30 percent in Latvia. We wanted to talk about all of this so we've called Elena Rodriguez-Falcon. She wears a number of hats at the University of Sheffield. She is professor of enterprise and engineering education. She's the director of the enterprise education. And she's also faculty director of Women in Engineering. She's with us from her office there. Professor, thank you so much for joining us.

ELENA RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Kimberly Bryant. She is founder of Black Girls CODE - that's a nonprofit that teaches programming skills to young women of color. And we reached her in San Francisco. Thank you so much for joining us as well.

KIMBERLY BRYANT: Thank you for having me as well.

MARTIN: Professor, let me start with you. I just was interested in why you think it is that the numbers for women engineers in England compare so poorly with the rest of Europe.

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: I think there is a long history of engineering in this country. Unfortunately, that history has faded a bit, and the perception of engineering in the U.K. has changed dramatically. So nowadays, people who repair your washing machine and your TV are known as engineers. So that confuses people at home very much. So when they advise their children about the future careers, they don't think about engineering because they think engineers are those who fix cars or mend washing machines. And there is also a big problem over the perception that this is a male-dominated discipline.

MARTIN: What about other countries like Germany and Sweden? What is it - and Latvia, for that matter - what is it you think they're doing differently?

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: Well, I think both countries that you just mentioned have a much more prominent manufacturing industry that is - surrounds society. So there are many more role models in Germany and Sweden that are parents of children, teachers, and they advise the children about the high-quality discipline that engineering is. But also, there is a huge recognition about these disciplines in countries like Germany, where an engineer receives their own title for being an engineer.

MARTIN: Like doctor in this country.

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: That's correct. That's correct.

MARTIN: Or esquire or lawyer, right, for example.

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: That's correct.

MARTIN: It's a title of honor. It's perceived as prestigious.

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: It is indeed.

MARTIN: Kimberly Bryant, what about you? What's your take on this?

BRYANT: I think Elena's right on point with her observations. We find the same thing here in the U.S., but a little bit different perceptions, which are keeping women out of the field. So in the U.S., we've traditionally been heavily manufacturing-focused as a nation, and I think there are points and times where we can look at when manufacturing was high - around the mid '80s, when there were lots of women going through the engineering pipeline.

That's decreased drastically now as both the manufacturing sector has lessened in the U.S. and as the technology sector has gone up. However, the perception of the technology sector, for better or worse, has become not one that looks welcoming to women and girls. And so we see less women and girls finding their way through that technology pipeline.

MARTIN: Well, I just want to spend one more second on the problem, and then I want to wheel around too 'cause both of you have ideas about ways to address this. So just before we wheel around to solutions, Kimberly Bryant, what about the cost of entry? I mean, is the cost of education a factor in getting more women into the tech pipeline?

BRYANT: Well, I don't think that the cost issue is necessarily what keeps women out of the pipeline when we have more women going to college these days in the U.S. - and graduating - than men. So obviously, getting into college has not become a barrier that is keeping women out. But I do think it's more of the perception issue and this whole idea that male-dominated industry, that engineering and technology is.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are continuing our month-long Women in Tech series. We are talking about getting more young women into tech fields. We're speaking with Kimberly Bryant, founder of the nonprofit Black Girls CODE. That's who was speaking just not. Also with us, engineering professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, who is in the University of Sheffield in England. So, Kimberly, you tweeted yesterday that computer programming should be taught to all students beginning in elementary school and that coding should be a third language. Tell us more about this idea.

BRYANT: I really think that our nation and our economy is going increasingly more towards technology. So I think it's important that the youth that are coming through our school systems - and they will be the workforce in 10, 20 years - should have the skills that they need to be able to be competitive. So by doing that, we need to have technology taught and computer science taught as early as elementary school so that kids have this access to this skill set, whether they go into computer science as a profession or not because technology is everything.

MARTIN: Professor, what about you? I noted again, as part of your portfolio that you're the faculty director of Women in Engineering. Is there something that you have observed that you think would make a difference, particularly starting younger - I don't know - raising the prestige of the field? That's an interesting question. That's something you highlighted. What do you think?

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: I agree with Kimberly. I think we need to start very early on to change perceptions. But I think we can even start earlier than primary school. We can start at home. Changing popular TV shows, literature, children's books where social constructs are not so defined. For example, when you read a book to your children, it's full of social constructs that define that a girl will be a nurse and a boy will be a firefighter, for example. And so I think popular culture is very important. But it's also very important to provide skills and tools to school teachers and career advisors to help children in schools, in secondary school - high school, you call it - to advise our young children to consider these disciplines.

MARTIN: Kimberly, you know, your organization has worked with - you were telling us - almost 2,000 girls in seven U.S. cities and Johannesburg. What did it take to make that happen and what kinds of results are you seeing as a result of that work?

BRYANT: Well, we started out the organization here in the San Francisco Bay area - very small, just as a pilot with only 10 to 12 girls - to even just test the fact that they would be interested in computer science and programming. And we had such great results with that pilot that the program really took off from there. So we bootstrapped the program for the first two years, really by going to - finding people that would give us any kind of donations, paying for a lot of the things out of our pockets until we could really build momentum for the organization. And so now we've grown to the point where we've reached over 2,000 girls, have had them participate in our programs both here as well as in Johannesburg.

And we're seeing students that are really sticking with the program. So more than 75 percent of our students repeat the program, have been with the program from the beginning. And they bring their friends and they tell their family, and that's how we have really started to grow. It's really organic. And these girls are now going on to do different things with the technology skills that we're giving them. So they're creating apps that they're putting in the app store. They're in the robotics scene. So they're really starting to blossom and really find their way and their feet.

MARTIN: Professor, let me ask you for the final thought here - are these kinds of conversations happening where you are in England? I mean, is it perceived as a problem that women are such a small percentage of the - in your field? And if so, what are some of the kinds of things that people are talking about to address this?

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: Absolutely. We have various conversations - well, hundreds of conversations taking place across the U.K. through government, industries, schools. Not so long ago, we were at the House of Commons celebrating and launching a new initiative that women in manufacturing - which is supported by the Swarovski foundation - to help us address these problems. So we are working together significantly to bring these solutions to society because we are very, very aware that if we don't change things rapidly, we are going to have a bigger problem in our hands. And we have serious issues - environmental issues, health, poverty - across the world.

And it's engineers and technologists who are going to help us out to solve those problems. And clearly, because of the research that we've done, we can see that most of our talented engineers are women, but we are losing a very talented pool of engineers to perception, which is a great shame.

MARTIN: Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is an engineering professor at the University of Sheffield. That's in the United Kingdom. We reached her at her office. Kimberly Bryant is founder of the nonprofit Black Girls CODE. We reached her in San Francisco. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

RODRIGUEZ-FALCON: Thank you.

BRYANT: Thank you.

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