In her new film She++: The Documentary, co-director Ellora Israni says, “We didn’t aspire to be nerds.” But she ended up as one—and is encouraging other women and girls to embrace their inner geek as computer scientists.
Turns out, the field is far from nerdy. In fact, it is one of the most in-demand careers right now—the number of jobs is currently tripling, according to Facebook’s director of engineering, Jocelyn Goldfein—and it doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. But computer science has a supply problem: there are nowhere enough software engineers to match the current demand. According to the film, U.S. businesses will need 1.4 million computer scientists by 2020. But at the current rate, only 30 percent of those jobs will be filled by American-trained professionals. And numbers are even more dismal for female scientists.
“In the West, we cut our scientific population in half because we don’t really encourage women,” says Eric Roberts, professor of computer science at Stanford.
Israni and her co-director Ayna Agarwal, both students in Stanford University’s class of 2014, founded their organization, She++, at the school in January 2012. It started out as the first women’s technology conference at Stanford and has since blossomed into a community that encourages more women to embrace computer science as a fruitful and fulfilling career.
“Quite simply, the goal of She++ is to rebrand technology for the next generation of good girls gone geek,” Israni said in an email. “We want to counter the ‘nerdy’ and ‘brogrammer’ stereotypes with more realistic portraits of what it is to be a technologist.”
To help accomplish their goal, Israni and Agarwal decided to dive headfirst into making She++: The Documentary.
“I noticed one thing: there was no one source that contained information about the current state of women in technology, gave compelling reasons as to why our nation should care, nor inspired younger girls to care and become agents themselves,” Agarwal said in an email.
Only 16 hours into its public release Monday, it had already accrued 4, 000 views online. But at first, the women faced their fair share of raised eyebrows and self-doubt en route to their goal.
“The same way people don’t expect to see girls in engineering, they don’t expect a couple of engineers to make a real movie,” Israni says. “As She++ continues to advocate for girls to take risks and do the things that scare them—those things hopefully including computer science—we want to make sure we’re walking the walk. So we did what scared us, and it paid off.”
The 12-minute documentary short investigates why women earned 52 percent of math and science degrees in 2009—but only 18 percent of technology-related degrees. For insight, Israni and Agarwal interviewed professionals working for high-profile tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Pinterest, plus students from Stanford’s computer-science program.
The female students all agreed that computer science is daunting at first—especially because some had no prior experience in the field and were surrounded by men who already had been coding for years. But the documentary points out that since so many companies need tech work, only a little bit of computer-science training opens up so many doors to different disciplines—including fashion and media.
“I think this is actually really a Rosie the Riveter moment, and that is that women are the great untapped bench,” says Goldfein. “If women were just represented proportionally, we would double the number of software engineers this country is making.”
She++ also hosts a conference and an e-mentoring program for high school students.
The program is not the only one for aspiring female coders. Girls Who Code was founded by Reshma Saujani, who is running for New York City public advocate and was the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress. The organization hosts an eight-week summer program for high school students and plans to launch coder clubs nationwide, according to the Girls Who Code website.
The key for programs like She++ and Girls Who Code is to get women to make their mark on the technology they already consume. As Sandy Jen, Google software engineer and founder of Meebo, says in the documentary, “People’s lives revolve all around tech, even if they don’t even know it.”