Girl Code

When freshman Siena Romito first walked into Computer Programming 1-2, she was met by a sea of fresh-faced, eager-to-learn boys, and two other girls. In the coming weeks, both of the other girls would transfer out, leaving Romito as the sole female in the class. “It was a lot of different things coming at once with the new school and the class,” she said. “In the beginning…I didn’t know where to start or who I should talk to. I think if it was a male teacher I definitely would’ve dropped out…[but] having a girl as a teacher, it’s just easier to relate to her. The guys all had each other to talk to or get help from, but I didn’t.”
Romito’s situation is by no means an anomaly, whether at Tam or in the workplace. According to the United States Department of Labor, women comprise 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force yet hold only 26 percent of all tech jobs. One might expect Tam would reap the benefits of living in such close proximity to Silicon Valley, but it offers just two courses in automotive technology, three in computer science (two of which are AP classes), one in architectural design, and two in engineering. In comparison, Redwood High School, a larger school in Tam’s district, offers six computer science classes, a web design course, five courses in architectural design, three in engineering (including a woodshop class), and in-depth accounting classes. In the 2016-17 Tam school year, 10 out of 63 students enrolled in computer programming classes, three out of 20 in engineering classes, and six out of 45 in automotive technology classes were female.
The numbers of classes available and students enrolled have increased in the past decade, according to Kelly Kennedy, a computer science and math teacher at Tam. Yet there still remains a lack of diversity in all aspects of the field. The technology industry as a whole is generally dominated by white and Asian people, leaving Hispanics and African Americans outnumbered. Women, too, remain underrepresented in the field. These trends carry over to Tam, where, students like Romito find, technology classes are dominated by boys.
Kennedy brought the computer programming courses with her when she joined the school in the 2015-16 school year. Eight years prior to Kennedy’s hiring, a male teacher had run a similar course, but that class disappeared when he left.
“When I came, I was originally interviewing for math but they offered me computer science as an option, and I love teaching electives so I [agreed],” Kennedy said. “Computer science is so relevant and it’s going to be integrated into math and science classes in the near future, so I think it’s very important in this generation and at Tam.”
A few years ago, the idea of computer science in every classroom might have sounded far-fetched, but with technology becoming more central to everyday life, it seems that that aspiration may very soon become reality. In early 2015, New York City launched a program dubbed “Computer Science for All,” allocating $81 million with the promise of making computer science available to all of the city’s public schools within 10 years. Several countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom, have followed suit, investing large sums of money into implementing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) into their public school curriculums. Just across the bay from Tam, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has begun pioneering their own program to spread computer science to all of their 57,000 students. These major budgets and high expectations are no doubt a start, but they put little emphasis on the female population. According to, a national nonprofit organization, 74 percent of girls in middle school express interest in STEM courses, but few retain this interest into college, where only 0.4 percent of girls select computer science as their major. But the statistics aren’t all dreary — both women and men are somewhat more likely to choose STEM-related majors than they were in 2004.
The Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) has not announced any programs similar to those in San Francisco or New York, but individual schools within the district have begun to take notice of the effect STEM is having on our culture. At Tam, Kennedy is interested into seeing how we could assimilate such fields in the future.
“I would like to start looking into integrated curriculums and core subjects that integrate STEM standards so that foreseeably we could start teaching math through computer science or geometry through engineering,” she said. The school where Kennedy formerly taught, Sonoma Valley High, started engineering- and design-related core classes with that principle in mind.
“I think [that model] could be effective here at Tam but it would be probably two or three years down the road before something like that got implemented to a full extent,” she said. “I think people could be open to it, but some people just haven’t seen what it looks like and the biggest thing is to make sure it would positively impact our culture and our school.”
Tam has not currently implemented a STEM-focused curriculum into pre-existing courses, but the issue extends beyond the classroom. The highest percentage of women occupying tech jobs was in 1991 at 36 percent, a statistic that has been on the decline ever since. In comparison, the number of computer science college graduates has risen by 92 percent in the last four years, and the number of computing-related jobs in the U.S. is expected to reach 1.1 million by 2024, a significant increase. There is somewhat of a paradox behind all of this: how can the tech industry be growing, while women are becoming less active in the field?
Perhaps the issue is rooted much earlier than previously thought: in prior education. One of Tam’s largest feeder schools is Mill Valley Middle School (MVMS). The school requires sixth graders to take technology, a one-trimester class, as part of the school’s “wheel” program that serves as a way to introduce students to potential future electives. But some students said that what is taught in the technology course doesn’t provide proper insight into what is actually done in those fields. Isabella Heinemann, an eighth grader at MVMS and a member of the school’s robotics team, knows that distinction firsthand.
“We did a little of Scratch,” she said, referring to the popular visual programming language developed by MIT and commonly utilized by elementary schoolers. “[But] it wasn’t about robotics or computer science as much. It’s nothing like robotics club right now.”
Romito, who went through the same curriculum, attested to its lack of depth. “In tech, in the wheel [program], we mainly did Photoshop and simple languages. It’s so different from my [computer science class] at Tam right now.”
Science teacher Ben Wien taught the wheel technology portion at MVMS for six years before moving onto Tech 2, where he has served as the teacher for four years now. He also mentors the robotics club. In response to student criticisms of the wheel classes not providing a proper introduction, Wien said: “We’ve articulated and set up the concepts [we’re using] throughout sixth, seventh and eighth grade, but I think there’s probably some more work that can be done…I think hearing from the kids [about] what’s happening in tech that’s really exciting to them right now and will give a learning experience [is important]. Things have changed so much in the last couple years, and our school has changed so much in the last three years, through the 1:1 iPad program, that whatever we can do that gets the kids to fully engage, something that they can be creative and learn with, is crucial, as opposed to continuing with the exact same program.”
Over Wien’s years as a teacher at MVMS, he has seen the program expand and the demand grow proportionately. “The tech classes didn’t even exist when I first started teaching here…and [they] have grown a lot,” he said. “I think that we are overenrolled for the tech classes — there are more kids interested than we have spots.” Nonetheless, in Wien’s 7th grade technology class this year, seven of the 55 students were girls. “I really don’t know [why there aren’t more girls]. I’m always puzzled as to if it’s that they’re not interested in taking tech or if they’re not signing up for the tech classes because it seems to me that there are more interested than there are signing up.”
Lack of course availability is also a prominent issue at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy (MLK), located in Marin City. In kindergarten through fifth grade, science is incorporated into the classroom curriculum. However, in middle school, the students are limited to science lessons twice a week with MLK’s sole science teacher, who works part-time at the school. Moreover, the seventh and eighth grade classes are merged, totalling around 23 students and combining the science curriculum for two different grades, giving students even less exposure to the subject.
“I think what [the school] needs to do is have a single-subject science teacher come and teach all of the grades separately,” said Louis Edney, who teaches language arts and history at MLK and is the school’s only full-time middle school teacher. “The only reason I think it is important for middle schools to have single subject is because [the teachers] are experts at it and that’s all they do so they can really focus on that.”
Another recurring issue is the school’s constant revolving door of teachers. At MLK, it isn’t unusual for a science teacher to only stay for a year or two before moving on. The current science teacher is in her first and last year at MLK, after not being asked to come back. “In the 12 years I have been here [in the district and as a teacher at the school] there have been maybe four different [science] teachers,” Edney said. “When I went to middle school I had science every single day and mostly why I think that science should be taught every day is because it’s an important subject and we need more scientists, especially female ones, on the planet. Anytime that you are cutting curriculum to save money, the students are impacted. [The students] aren’t front-loaded when they go to Tam where there is everyday science and I want [MLK] kids to be exposed the way that Hall Middle School or MVMS kids are…they will be left behind and I don’t want that to happen.”
Moving on into high school, when students have more freedom in course selection, many of them take new routes. When choosing electives prior to freshman year, Romito was encouraged by her family and friends to take computer science, but few of them believed she’d follow through.
“My parents thought it was a good idea but didn’t really think I would actually do it,” she said. “I think some of my friends think it’s funny [that I’m in the class]…they just think it’s different for me to do it. I don’t think it’s because I’m a girl, but just because it’s computer programming.”
Freshman Alex Gershman was one of the three girls in Romito’s computer programming class for exactly a week before she transferred to photography. After moving from Del Mar Middle School in Tiburon, Gershman was already an outlier considering almost everyone in the computer programming was acquainted with one another. However, Gershman continued to find herself lost as the class progressed. “Immediately, I had no idea what [Ms. Kennedy] was talking about and everyone else knew exactly what she was saying and I felt so completely lost…like I wasn’t part of that group. So I switched out.”
Kennedy, who graduated from Dartmouth with a major in engineering sciences and studio art in 2005, is more than familiar with Gershman’s struggle. “In college, I had to take computer science as a prerequisite…I was often ignored when I was contributing to group projects. If I was in a group with mostly men, I was just totally disregarded at times. I would offer a solution to a problem to help them with their work and they would ignore me. I was talked down to a lot — it was very subtle but it was there.” About four of the 30 students in Kennedy’s engineering class at Dartmouth were female.
Since her time at Dartmouth, the school has made evident progress — in 2016 the school made history by granting 54 percent of its undergraduate engineering degrees to women. The headway the school has made is promising for women across the country. According to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), 19 percent of students who receive undergraduate degrees in engineering are women. Dartmouth has approached that issue by encouraging students — from liberal arts to language majors — to take courses that put emphasis on technology. Other top universities have taken procedures similar to Dartmouth. In 2016, 48.5 percent of the students enrolled in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University were women. There was a similar outcome in the school’s College of Engineering (43.3 percent), leading to an almost equal ratio within the university.
Morgaine Mandigo Stoba, an astrophysics major and recent Tam graduate, is a freshman at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and has also had a firsthand experience with sexism in the classroom. At Tam, Mandigo Stoba took many courses relevant to her current major, including AP Computer Science (APCS), AP Biology, AP Calculus BC, and an online Multivariable Calculus class.
“I’ve definitely been patronized by people both in high school and here at Caltech. Back in my sophomore year at Tam, I was heavily involved in the Engineering Club of which I would later become president,” she said. “One Saturday, we were all working on our 3D printer [and] as usual, I was the only girl present. One of the freshman asked a simple question aloud and I answered. He gave me a [look of] disbelief and asked one of the male club members, who gave him the same answer. The questioning of my technical ability was unfortunately frequent, especially from male club members.”
Two years ago, the undergraduate population was 59 percent male and 41 percent female. according to the Caltech registration office. However, these numbers have begun to even out and the gender ratio of the incoming classes has become nearly 50:50. Despite this, Mandigo Stoba continues to feel the subtle pressure of being a female, even at Caltech.
“Earlier this year, I went to office areas for my Single Variable Calculus class. When I entered the room, the TA was working with a few male students, solving a difficult problem. When he began helping me, his tone completely changed…The TA assumed that I had no prior knowledge and even asked me [about a simple derivative], which was one of the first thing taught in Calculus AB [at Tam]. The next student was also female, and he treated her in the same remedial manner. Not only was it offensive and embarrassing, it prevented me from getting anything out of the session.”
Because Caltech is a tech-oriented school, very few people major in fields outside of STEM — less than one student per year.. Therefore, the majority of Mandigo Stoba’s classes share a 50:50 gender balance. Although many of her classes are related to her major, she has also taken Introductory Computer Science, a common freshman course, and feels that her Tam classes have prepared her well.
“APCS at Tam only taught Java, which is not a language that I have used since coming to Caltech,” she said. “However, I think the general concepts I learned have been applicable to a lot of my classes here, many of which include programming…I’ve never felt behind in terms of my programming skills, so I’d say that I was pretty well prepared for computer science here.”
The gulf between the two genders doesn’t stop at the high school or even collegiate level. Only 15 percent of tech’s chief officer titles are held by women; 5 percent of tech startup owners are women; 17 percent of tech employees at Google are women. The imposing evidence continues to mount, creating an unavoidable rift in the technology industry.
Social pressures are also prominent in workplace, creating stereotypes about women. Their under representation in tech stems from deep-rooted societal norms, according to Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and spokesperson for promoting women’s rights. “We put more pressure on our boys to succeed and on our girls to stay at home,” she said in a TED Talk. “Bias is experienced and practiced by both men and women. It hurts all of us.”
However, Wien has seen a shift in this phenomenon, especially with regards to commercial products. “I don’t think that the activities are necessarily stereotypical towards boys, [but] some of the products are. We’ve used Lego products for a long time and the way that they were marketed for a long time was much more geared towards boys. That seems to have changed in the last couple years where it’s not towards building a specific thing but involves more creativity…it’s not more boy or girl oriented but just about the end product.”
Freshman Rebecca Preis took all the technology classes available at MVMS and made a smooth transition into Principles of Engineering at Tam. Her current class, in which the students represent a range of grades, has 4 girls out of 25 students.
“The truth is that [women] are just viewed as a minority [in tech] because they are,” she said. “The media obviously portrays us differently — I think it started off as more men in business, that being less women, and the media portrayed that and now it’s just a trend. “[The media has expanded this effect] because if you never see someone like you doing something, you’re going to be less inclined to do it.”
Wien shares a similar perspective. “I know this is a problem statewide and nationwide that [technology is] vastly under enrolled, especially in high school classes, with girls [in] coding…I know this is a problem in the tech industry as far as programmers and stuff like that which are so overwhelmingly male,” he said. “It’s not like there are no girls getting involved in computer science but the number is incredibly low. I’d be interested in talking to women who have chosen to continue on in a career in computer science and see what kind of obstacles they felt were in their way. There are stereotypes about programmers and computer science people and I wonder if that stereotype is self-selecting in who gets involved with computer science to some extent. Since the industry has been around for a long time now, maybe that has somehow influenced who chooses to study it and get involved.”
Although stereotyping is a huge factor, due to the immense income gap in the world of tech, women are also financially affected, regardless of their position or capabilities. These disparities have contributed to Silicon Valley’s self-garnered nickname, The Boys’ Club, which reflects exactly what it is: a male-dominated environment in which women are reduced to high-heeled secretaries.
The median hourly wage for STEM jobs is $37.44 as opposed to $18.68, the average wage for all other jobs. Yet 69 percent of the time, women are paid less for the same job at the same company, according to Hired, a job recruiting startup. Preis believes that the wage distinction, while important, isn’t a discouraging factor for women considering a career in tech. “I don’t necessarily think [the wage gap] is going to change their mind about [joining the industry], but it can bias them,” she said. “For example], if you’re in the industry and you’re getting paid less it’s just going to make you not enjoy your job and be more likely to not continue…I think the difference in pay may change their viewpoint once they are in the workplace.”
Beyond the monetary imbalance, there is another factor that has impacted Silicon Valley for years: sexual assault and harassment. A recent study called “Elephant in the Valley,” conducted by working entrepreneurs and CEOs living in Silicon Valley, surveyed more than 200 women with 10 or more years of experience. The study indicates that 60 percent of women in tech reported unwanted sexual advances, and that one in three women feel fearful of their personal safety because of that. In addition, 60 percent of women who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with their company’s response, and 39 percent of those harassed took no action because they were worried it would affect their careers.
In recent years, more light has been shed on this issue, bringing awareness to the sexism in the Valley and beyond. Perhaps the most prominent case occurred early this year, when ex-Uber employee Susan Fowler wrote a detailed blog post that reflected on her tumultuous year recounting her manager’s unwarranted plea to sleep with him and threats of termination, after the incident. Her story soon went viral, leading to immediate backlash against the company, and causing women with similar stories to speak out. Knowing, as a women, they would be entering a sexist culture, with little compensation and an increased risk of sexual harassment, why would any women dare to step foot in the world of technology?
School districts, teachers, and industry professionals are seeking answers to these questions. But when girls receive an adequate introduction into the world of tech and retain that interest throughout their schooling and into the workplace, the results are undeniable. “Honestly, I think people see me as smarter and that I know what I’m doing,” said Romito, “like I have my whole life together. Most people just take art, but I’m going in and trying something different.”
Around the world, people have united to bridge the gender gap in technology and provoke change. Organizations targeted at girls to spark interest in STEM-related fields have emerged, like Girls Who Code (U.S.), She++ (Stanford University), DC Web Women (Washington D.C.), and Women in Technology (United Kingdom). Through networking, recruitment, informative classes, and summits, they have reached out to thousands of girls to promote the pursuit of careers in technology.
At Tam, Kennedy is hard at work creating more classes and programs to supplement the current technology classes available. Next year, Tam will be offering AP Computer Science Principles, a course more project-based in comparison to the current computer science classes. Kennedy is also looking into curriculums for a cybersecurity class. She also has plans to implement a Girls Who Code chapter at Tam. “It will be more directed into encouraging more female students and students of color to the field,” she said. “I think we will be doing some activities at MLK Middle School and MVMS as well to try to encourage more women into the subject, maybe even going into some of the elementary schools. They [can be] exposed to it at a younger age and know that they have a program here coming into Tam.”
Kennedy emphasized the importance of males getting involved as well as females, in order to close the gender gap.
“I think that awareness is really important and people are becoming more and more aware. We need a lot of support from the men and from the people that do have the representation in the subject to actually be interested in encouraging more diversity,” she said. “If [the men] are the majority, and we don’t have their buy-in in getting more of this diversity, then we’re going to be fighting the system, essentially, and it’s going to be a real uphill battle.”

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