Holtzman: Schools must do more to encourage girls’ interests in tech

Rachel Holtzman, Columnist

Last Saturday, about a dozen Girl Scouts visited the Northwestern University Knight Lab, where they experimented with the Knight Lab’s virtual reality headsets. It’s one of many components of the Girl Scouts’ new STEM programs, which foster mentorship and focus on exposing girls to hands-on science and technology projects.

As Silicon Valley reckons with its toxicity towards women and people of color, it’s clear that schools have failed to educate children and young adults — especially girls — for the digital age. The presence of advanced technology in the classroom doesn’t necessarily guarantee equal opportunity or access.

In a world increasingly dependent on digital literacy and technological skills, schools do girls a disservice by reinforcing the stereotype that technology is an exclusively male industry. We can’t rely on Silicon Valley to push a new generation of women into tech; it’s up to schools and after-school programs to encourage girls to enter these fields. By providing young girls with hands-on programs and role models, we can undo biases around women in technology and equip them with the tools they’ll need to succeed.

The problems of gender discrimination and sexual harassment plaguing top industries begin with gender stereotyping early in our education system and have real-world consequences. Only about 20 percent of college degrees in computer science nationwide are awarded to women, and girls are discouraged from entering technology fields long before. A study released last summer found that when a group of first graders was asked whether boys or girls were better at robotics, programming, math and science, the majority of all students answered, “Boys.”

So how do we change that perception? Early exposure to tech can have a marked impact on both boys and girls, and must be encouraged by both parents and teachers. In a study in which some students were given a chance to play with a toy robot, the girls who got to program the bot reported an equal interest in tech to the boys — but the gender gap persisted with girls who were given a non-tech task. Hands-on experience in the classroom and after-school activities can expose girls to technology and robotics early.

But exposure alone won’t encourage girls to pursue jobs in tech. Like in any other field, mentorship, job shadowing and hands-on projects targeted specifically at girls will show them that it’s possible for people who look like them to succeed. Meeting a woman working at a startup as a coder, robotics expert or product developer can serve as valuable examples for what they can achieve. They’ll be more likely to have confidence in their own abilities and be adequately equipped to pursue the education and training needed to succeed.

In today’s digital age, tech has affected almost every field — from the finance industry to media to commerce. If we change nothing about the way we teach boys and girls to view women in tech, we’ll continue to widen the gender gap, making it even harder for girls to survive and thrive in new industries. On the other hand, increasing budgets for technology programs, mentorship and hands-on experiences will play a key role in changing the face of tech innovation for good.

Rachel Holtzman is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.