You know what’s cool? You can dream of a billion dollars, sure. But in the meantime, how about creating animated .gif files, designing and making bracelets on a 3D printer, or composing your own digital music?
That (and not the billion dollars part) is the message that Google (GOOG) plans to send to a group of teenage girls in New York on Thursday as it launches Made with Code, its latest campaign aiming to convince girls that computer programming is indeed cool. Google has enlisted some high profile spokespeople for the campaign, including Chelsea Clinton and comedian Mindy Kaling, and it is pledging to donate $50 million to the cause.
“We are trying to inspire millions of girls to code,” says Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube and most senior female executive at Google, which owns the online video site.
The initiative comes in the wake of Google’s disclosure that despite its best efforts to recruit women, they remain woefully underrepresented at the company. Only 30% of its employees worldwide are female, lower than industry average. (Google also fell short of its aspiration to be ethnically diverse, as only 5% of its U.S. staff is either Hispanic or black.) Still, Google was widely praised for releasing the data voluntarily, and other companies like Yahoo (YHOO) and LinkedIn (LNKD) promptly followed suit. (LinkedIn reported that 39% of its employees are women; Yahoo said 37% of its employees are women.)
Google says one reason women are so underrepresented in technical positions as adults is that the percentage of young women choosing to pursue computer science degrees is small. It hopes to change that with Made with Code. The campaign was devised after its own research showed that encouragement and exposure are important factors in inspiring girls to pursue computer science careers. The research shows that parental encouragement is particularly critical, but girls are half as likely as boys to receive that encouragement. Its research also showed that exposure to computer science in pre-college years is vital, and that girls who have positive perceptions of computer science as a career, and understand its potential for social impact, are much more likely to express interest.
The initiative will encourage teen girls to start by doing projects in a simple language called Blockly, and will connect both girls and their parents to additional resources. With hands on projects in art music and other areas, Google is hoping to show that computer skills are important in careers outside the tech world.
This is hardly Google’s first effort in the area. Since 2010, it has invested some $40 million in organizations like Code.org, Black Girls Code, Technovation and Girls Who Code. With the newly-pledged $50 million, it will back several efforts through organizations like Khan Academy, Codeacademy, Donorschoose.org, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology, all aimed at building a “pipeline” of women with technical skills.
Wojcicki is not an engineer, but she did take some computer science in college. She learned plenty about technology on the job, after joining Google as its 16th employee, and rising quickly through the ranks to become manager of large groups of engineers. She says computer science has become even more critical since the time she started her career at Google. “If I were growing up in today’s world, it would be harder not to have had that background,” she says. “If I were to do it again, I would have a computer science degree.”
Wojcicki, who has four children, says the gender gap around technology starts at a young age, even in Silicon Valley. When she picks up her son at computer camp, the vast majority of participants are boys, she says.
“I feel like I’m looking into the next generation, and it’s not looking that much better,” she says. “I think we can make a difference.”