Twitter Invests in Young Women with ‘Girls Who Code’

Tech companies say they want to recruit more girls. But how? Allison Yarrow investigates.

Image Source / Getty Images

Twitter is marking its first foray into funding philanthropy, giving an undisclosed sum to a new program, Girls Who Code, that will give an 8 week, 8-hours-a-day computer science crash course and mentorship to 20 at-risk high school girls this summer.

“These are girls who have never even been in an office building in many cases,” said the program’s executive director, Kristen Titus, who launched and helped run the giving network, Jumo, along with Facebook co-founder and The New Republic owner Chris Hughes. The program is also being backed by Google, General Electric, and eBay.

The idea for GWC struck founder Reshma Saujani, a former deputy Public Advocate in New York, when she was challenging incumbent Carolyn Maloney for the 14th district congressional seat in the 2010 Dem primary. Campaigning whisked her to an Upper East Side robotics lab and church in Queensbridge housing project with a single computer in the basement—all in the same day.

“Bill Gates and Steve Jobs created products used by women and geared toward women, but they’re not made by women,” said Saujani. “Girls don’t see that these professions are open to them. It’s so important to see someone who looks like you doing the thing you think you cannot do.”

Though women comprise more than half the workforce, they hold less than 25% of all science, tech, engineering and math jobs, according to a report by the Department of Commerce.

Saujani recently announced she is exploring a run for Public Advocate in 2013, as her former boss Bill de Blasio is term limited out and expected to run for mayor.

“She is one of the few people running for the office who understands the potential of technology to help reinvent the Public Advocate’s office as a network rather than a single person on a soapbox,” Chairman of NY Tech Meetup and founder of Personal Democracy Andrew Rasiej said.

He says the two largest “structural problems” facing the technology sector are that there is “no pipeline of talent to feed the growing boom” and “very little diversity, particularly among women.” It’s one of the reasons he has consulted on the development of Girls Who Code, why he supports Saujani’s candidacy and why he says “we need hundreds of organizations like Girls Who Code.”

The paucity of women in STEM is not just a problem for New York. Many countries are trying to solve the drain, but not all have employed solid plans. The European Union released an advertising campaign called Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” complete with an 80’s-style video of dancing girls in glasses, interspersed with swirling beakers, colored smoke, and lipstick tubes. As much an assault on the eyes as an insult to educated women, the campaign video was quickly pulled. The sentiment was in the right place, though, as those countries seek to inspire more career researchers in engineering and manufacturing.

Saujani, the daughter of Ugandan refugees who was the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress, drew ire from feminists and politicians like Geraldine Ferraro and former NOW president Marilyn Fitterman according to the New York Times, for not waiting her turn to run for the seat that Maloney has held for 20 years.

Women have certainly waited to become more integrated into the top of the tech food chain. Yesterday, Facebook named the first woman, COO Sheryl Sandberg, to its board after bitter criticism from media and even an independent grassroots effort to persuade them to diversify. Of Twitter's 500 engineers, about 30 are women according to a source close to the company.

"We are always actively recruiting the most talented engineers—men and women alike," said Twitter spokesperson, Carolyn Penner.

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Girls Who Code's curriculum will weave sessions on robotics, mobile apps, web design, and engineering fundamentals, with a prominent speakers series featuring Gilt Groupe founder Alexis Maybank and General Electric CMO, Beth Comstock. The girls, who are mostly first-generation Americans, and whose average age is 15, will also tour the New York offices of Twitter, Facebook, Google, Foursquare, and other technology companies for a sense of their inner-workings and a peek at the ranks that they'll hope to one day infiltrate.

In addition to tensions around enlisting women, many tech companies have faced criticism for their lack of charity. Apple was even pummeled for inhibiting third party giving on its iPhone device, a phenomenon Titus is all-too aware of and ready to see change. Girls Who Code’s interests align with those of tech companies.

“We’re able to make a strong business case to these entities and really get their buy in for something that impacts future of their companies,” Titus said.