Girls Who Code program seeks to increase retention of women in tech

When the nonprofit Girls Who Code started a new “College Loops” program last year, students at UC Santa Cruz were quick to establish a branch

Harshitha Arul Murugan
Harshitha Arul Murugan is president of the UCSC branch of Girls Who Code.

Computer science is known for being a heavily male-dominated field, and this disproportion between the genders has gotten worse rather than better over the last three decades. According to Emily Chang's book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, nearly 40% of computer science degrees in 1984 were earned by women, compared to just 22% today.

With so few women in tech and engineering, it can be difficult for women to see themselves in these careers, which only perpetuates the gender gap. In an effort to encourage more women to enter the field, the national nonprofit Girls Who Code (GWC) has been working to change the collective image of what a computer scientist or engineer looks like, providing models of female computer scientists through books, speakers, and programs that teach girls practical computing skills.

GWC’s main focus has been on high-school and middle-school girls, but as an estimated 30,000 of its programs’ 185,000 alumni are reaching college age, the organization has begun expanding its reach. Last year, GWC announced it was launching a new College Loops program, and students at UC Santa Cruz were quick to establish their own branch. Harshitha Arul Murugan, current president of the UCSC branch, has some ambitious plans for how to encourage retention of women in tech on campus.

High school coder to college computer science major

Arul Murugan is herself an alumna of a high school Girls Who Code program. She spent seven weeks interning with a group of 30 girls at a tech company in Sunnyvale. Before entering the program at the end of her junior year, she had decided not to go into computer science because she had had negative experiences in previous coding classes.

“Both of my parents work in the tech industry, but at first I did not want to go into it because I took a couple of coding classes, and there were only two girls and eight boys,” she explains. “If the boys finished anything faster they would say, ‘Oh, it is because we are boys, we are good at this naturally.’ It was really discouraging... I was determined to go into business instead, but then I got involved with Girls Who Code and gave computer science one last try. It was so nice being in a room full of girls, not being embarrassed to ask any questions. It was great, and that is actually what got me back into the computer science major.”

After her internship, Arul Murugan formed a GWC club at her high school. She says she is even more excited about the college version of the club because of the opportunity it provides for practical career training and more personal mentorship.

Arul Murugan experienced this type of mentorship first-hand from the UCSC club’s former president, Victoria Tran, who started the campus's first college loop last year before graduating and starting her career at eBay. Arul Murugan says Tran helped her and other group members navigate issues such as imposter syndrome, a feeling among some students and professionals characterized by thoughts that one is an “imposter” and does not really belong in a particular field. Impostor syndrome can affect people of all genders, but Arul Murugan suspects that female students might feel it more strongly because they have fewer models of computer scientists or engineers who look like them.

“When I came to UCSC, I had a group of friends who were mostly boys, and sometimes I just didn’t feel comfortable sharing things like imposter syndrome with them because most guys don’t even know what that is,” Arul Murugan notes. “But when I joined GWC in winter quarter, Victoria was talking about it and encouraging us through it. Having a kind of older sister telling you, ‘Yeah, you’ve got this, if I can get through this you can get through this,’ that really helped me a lot.”

Big plans for the 2019-20 academic year

This year, Arul Murugan hopes to foster the type of mentorship she found so helpful last year by using GWC to create a kind of “big sister” program that pairs freshmen and sophomores with juniors and seniors for one-on-one mentoring to encourage the more junior students to stay in engineering majors.

“A couple of my friends wanted to do computer science and computer engineering, but they didn’t feel accepted and wanted to drop out of the major,” she says. “I want to encourage people to stay in the major and see how awesome it is. We can make a huge impact on the field as women because there aren’t that many women at the table, and we bring a new perspective.”

The national organization of Girls Who Code provides curriculum for the college loops, but it also allows college groups more freedom than the programs for younger girls. Arul Murugan plans to include time during club meetings for students to learn and practice skills they will need for technical interviews and building their future careers. Most importantly, however, she wants to provide a space for women to discuss questions, concerns, and even their failures with one another.

“I really want to create a safe space where we could discuss things that we couldn’t discuss outside,” she says.

In addition to running club meetings, Arul Murugan is also working toward creating the first annual Baskin Engineering Women’s Graduation Banquet to celebrate the accomplishments of women who stick with engineering majors. Abigail Kaun, executive adviser to the dean of the Baskin School of Engineering, is helping the group obtain sponsors for the banquet. Kaun says that student groups like Girls Who Code can help female students overcome the stereotype threat and imposter syndrome that frequently discourage women from continuing in tech fields.

“I think Girls Who Code has the potential to be extremely effective in building confidence and certainly in building community,” she said. “Finding community can be a problem if your group is 22 percent of the population, but Girls Who Code is building a community of colleagues that they can build on and learn from.”

Arul Murugan also stressed how important community is for women in STEM, and urges other women to join clubs in which they can feel less isolated.

“I would encourage the incoming class of female engineers to join clubs like Society of Women Engineers, AMC-W, and Girls Who Code to build a strong network of women around them whom they can go to for help,” she says. “That is what has helped me get through high school and college, and I really want incoming students to find a strong group of women to help them as well.