Summer camps try to solve Silicon Valley's gender gap

girls who code
Khady Samb attends Girls Who Code, a New York summer camp introducing young women to the world of technology.

Most school-aged girls spend July and August catching some Z's and sun. But for some girls, summer is all about learning HTML and developing mobile apps.

A growing handful of summer camps are popping up around the country with the mission of teaching young women core skills in technology -- a field dominated by men.

Girls Who Code, an eight-week New York summer camp, immerses 20 high school girls in a tech training boot camp. Eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, the young women learn about a wide variety of tech topics from robotics to website design.

Guest speakers include an eBay (EBAY) executive, a venture capitalist, and a technology entrepreneur among some other in-the-know tech personalities. But participants don't spend all day in the classroom: They also take field trips to Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG), Twitter, the United Nations and Gilt.

For their final project, Girls Who Code students develop and present an app.

"All the field trips have been so interesting and I can always find myself relating to parts of the topics presented," said 15-year-old Mahlika George, who's heading into her junior year at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani said the organization hopes to get more girls interested in technology and consider the field as a real career possibility.

"I think young girls really internalize that sense that we're not good at math and science," Saujani said. "I don't want a young girl to feel that way."

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, just 24% of women hold STEM jobs -- occupations in science, technology, engineering or math. Only 12.7% of bachelor's degrees in computer science, computer engineering and information were received by women in the 2010-2011 school year, according to the most recent data from the Computer Research Association.

It's a gender gap that businesses are longing to fix. Women are more active Internet users than men, according to data from Pew, and they are far more engaged in social media.

Fast forwarding women in tech

Technology businesses could take advantage of that by leveraging the perspective of a greater number of female engineers, designers, coders and executives.

"We have no idea how much [these types of businesses] could do if women were actually designing the products," Saujani said. "I think every company wants to hire more women because it makes more business sense."

That's precisely why Twitter has become involved in the tech summer camp. As a partner of the program, the microblogging site admitted in a recent blog post that it has invested in rallying young women into technology, because "having more female engineers on staff leads to having an even better working environment at Twitter."

Microsoft (MSFT) has taken the issue so seriously that it started its own tech summer camp for girls. The software giant's DigiGirlz High Tech camp hosts about a dozen sessions around the world each year, giving participants insight into the potential of holding a career in the industry.

Created in 2000 from a grassroots effort by two female Microsoft employees, the free, volunteer-run program has reached 19,000 young women cumulatively, said Jacinda Chislum, a DigiGirlz representative.

Other tech camps are aimed at giving girls the ability to turn their coding skills into businesses. Philadelphia-based TechGirlz set up a weeklong program to address the fact that only 3% of tech startups are led by women, according to a study by Kauffman Foundation.

In the organization's summer entrepreneur program, 19 girls ages nine to 16 are thrown into what essentially amounts to a tech accelerator. The young women develop prototypes for websites or apps and write business plans. They wrap up the program with a demo day and make pitches to startup executives and developers.

This July, one team came up with a pet sitting app for clients and sitters. Another promoted a trading card website for kids.

"What has been shown is that girls are self-selecting out of technology because of how they feel computer jobs are -- that they're going to be thought of as a nerd ... [and] they're not going to be creative or collaborative," said Tracey Welson-Rossman, TechGirlz founder. "That's not the case. There's definitely a misperception and a misconception."

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