Women Who Code

June 9, 2014—A new Georgetown science group—GU Women Who Code—is hoping to strengthen the odds that more women will go into the field of technology or use coding in their daily lives.

In 2010, 15 percent of computer science majors at major research universities were women, far less than in 1985, when women made up 37 percent of the major, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 2.4 million computer specialist jobs will be available by 2020, but qualified graduates will fill only 29 percent of those positions.

“The data and the research show that [the number of] girls and women in technology is extremely low, and we must do everything we can to encourage them to stay in the field,” said Lisa Davis, Georgetown’s vice president and CIO who has worked in the technology sector for 30 years.

GU Women Who Code originated when a group of female students approached Lisa Davis last fall. In return, Davis asked Lisa Singh, associate professor of computer science in Georgetown College, about starting a coding group.

“If there’s a way we can teach them some technology, some coding, some simple things that they can use in their regular routines and their own disciplines, that is going to be a huge win at Georgetown,” Singh explained. Singh said attendance at the first GU Women Who Code meeting this past January exceeded expectations, with more than 70 women representing “a vast array of interests and majors” showing up in a room that could hold only 15 to 20 people.

Participants in the group are learning to code using the programming language Python, which Singh says is the easiest language for the coders to get programs up and running without being syntactically complex for beginner programmers. “There were two parts that we cared about,” Singh explained. “We want those who might be in sciences to be able to manipulate data and learn how to do that well … and I also wanted a language that could do things like graphical user interfaces and had libraries for visualization.”

Singh presents a two-hour lecture every three weeks during the academic year. In the weeks in between, 20 mentors proficient in Python lead small groups. Students who can’t attend the lectures can watch them online and code at their own pace. “You get out of it what you put into it,” Singh said. “By the end I want them to really be competent in programming and in thinking about programming.”

Singh hopes the current crop of nascent programmers will eventually act as mentors for other women interested in computer programming so that they can also be technology savvy and enjoy doing it.

“Why can’t computing be a fun hobby that we learn even if it’s not your discipline?” she continued. She also believes Georgetown can take a lead role in pioneering computer innovation in liberal arts for women.

“I really think that Georgetown as a liberal arts [institution] can pioneer an area of computing innovation in liberal arts for women,” she said. “This is something that could be a really big deal if we cultivate it well.”