Computing Profession

Google’s Mind the Gap! Program Interests Women in CS

Michal Segalov
Michal Segalov, a software engineer at Google's Israel R&D Center

It might be difficult to imagine, but sessions lasting just two hours with female software engineers are convincing female high-school students in Israel to change their majors to computer science and to consider CS as a career.

In a 450-person subset of the more than 2,500 female students who have participated in the Mind The Gap! program sponsored by Google’s Israel R&D Center since May 2008, some 40% have chosen computer science as a high school major.

"Fewer than one-third of the world’s engineering jobs are held by women," blogs Michal Segalov, a Google software engineer at the Center, "and even in high-tech Israel, few girls choose computer science."

Segalov and a co-worker, software engineer Daniela Raijman, chose to address the situation by taking advantage of Google’s 20% time program, which urges employees to use up to 20% of their work week to pursue special projects.

"We felt many girls have misperceptions about what computer science is and what people who work on CS do," she explains in an email interview. "We chose to address those misconceptions and to encourage them to consider studying the subject."

As described in their paper–published by ACM–Segalov and Raijman decided to host monthly visits to Google’s Tel Aviv office.

"We hosted 50 girls at a time for a two-hour visit," says Raijman, "and got help from the Israeli National Center for Computer Science Teachers [known as Machshava in Hebrew] which coordinated the visits with the schools."

Each two-hour visit included:
–10 minutes of light refreshment
–a 30-minute lecture about Google products and an introduction to Google’s search engine
–30-40 minutes with a panel of 4-6 female Google software engineers
–a 30-40-minute office tour guided by the female engineers
–an informal chat between students and engineers in small groups of 8-12 pupils.

Tami Lapidot, Machshava’s executive manager, believes there are four reasons for the program’s success. In an e-mail interview, she explains: "For most of the girls, it is their first visit to a hi-tech working place and it is very impressive for them, especially since Google looks like a fun place to work. Also, the Google female engineers are very warm to the girls and host them with great hospitality."

And, she says, "role models are known to have an impact on people. Listening and talking to female engineers who share their life stories is very impressive for the girls. Most importantly, the message given to the girls is that computer science is an interesting field with many challenges, and they should not be afraid to study it."

It is still too early to determine how many of the students actually make CS their career, says Segalov.

"That data won’t be available for awhile," she notes. "We launched the program three-and-a-half years ago and, in Israel, students start work later in life due to their first entering the military. But we are now thinking of ways to stay in contact with the girls to gather those longer-term statistics."

Meanwhile, the students are encouraged to anonymously submit their reactions after each session. Segalov offered an example: "Previously, I was sure I wasn’t going to study CS in high school–and now I am sure I am! It was all so interesting. It made me think of all the things I can create if I work at Google."

A similar, but much smaller Digital Divas program in Australia also generated positive results; of the 24 student participants, 16 said they will now consider an IT career.

"We are encouraging engineers at other companies to make similar efforts," says Segalov. "All you need is a few enthusiastic individuals and encouragement from your manager and company."

For Additional Information

To learn more about the Mind The Gap! program:
–Send an email.
–Visit the program’s Web site
–Watch the video.
–Learn how to launch a similar program.

Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.


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