Abstract
There exist many interventions that have attempted to solve the gender disparity in computing. The intervention with arguably the greatest name recognition is Girls Who Code (GWC), an educational nonprofit which runs introductory computer science courses for female and non-binary students in middle and high school. Little prior research has been done about the organization. I conducted an interview study with nine current or former GWC instructors to better understand the way GWC is situated socially, culturally, politically, and financially. Additionally, I aimed to elevate the subjective experiences of my informants. I found that GWC has significant emphases on community-building and inclusivity and integrates feminist approaches. I also discuss the opposition of GWC’s activism and the interests of their corporate sponsors.
Background
A recent 2020 Google-Gallup study found that only 37% of female students have “received encouragement from an adult in their lives to pursue a career in computer science” while the percentage for male students was 52% (Gallup 2020, 21). This statistic may be one of many factors that have caused only 12% of girls to expect to pursue a CS career as opposed to 33% of boys (4). This gender disparity has persisted despite the many interventions that are working to reverse the trend.
Girls Who Code (GWC) is a well-known 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit seeking to close the gender gap in computing (“Girls Who Code” 2021). They have become a household name in the computer science industry, both due to their memorable name and their large footprint. They have extensive industry support, with large corporate partners such as Walmart, Bank of America, and AT&T. However, despite their name recognition, little information can be found about the organization online.
GWC has two primary types of interventions: clubs and summer programs (“Girls Who Code” 2021). Both are free to participate in. Clubs are local volunteer-run programs that meet during the school year for 1-3 hours per week and target a broader range of ages. These clubs are independently run and receive support from the GWC national organization in the form of curriculum materials and funding. However, clubs have the autonomy to create their own curriculum, and clubs may have to host their own fundraisers to meet the needs of their club.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, summer programs during 2020 and 2021 have been run virtually and remotely using the Zoom teleconferencing software. As of summer 2021, there are two different summer programs. The Summer Immersion Program (SIP) is their flagship program which is full-time for a 2-week session. Students in financial need are offered a $300 stipend to offset the opportunity cost of being unable to work during this time. SIP classrooms are always sponsored by an industry partner, and before the pandemic, the partner would host the SIP classroom at their corporate offices. This has traditionally been a very close partnership. The other summer program is the Self-Paced Program (SPP), which is new in 2021. SPP is 6-weeks long and is primarily asynchronous. Students meet once a week with their cohort and advisors for advisory sessions, which include review games, ‘sisterhood activities’, and a Women in Tech spotlight. Students also have the option of attending ‘student hours’ (similar to office hours) to ask their advisors questions or code along with others. Instruction is primarily delivered through pre-recorded videos, and students work asynchronously on 3 projects over the course of the summer.
Related Work
There are many other existing interventions that attempt to close the gender disparity in computer science. Some of these organizations include GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math and Science) (“GEMS Club” 2019), Kode with Klossy (“Kode With Klossy” 2019), and Girlstart (“Girlstart” 2021). GEMS appears to be a loosely coordinated collective of local school clubs registered with Purdue University’s College of Education (“Research” 2019). It is dissimilar from GWC in that it does not have a centralized organization. Kode with Klossy appears to be more similar to GWC. The organization is run by a 501(c)(3) non-profit and offers a two-week long bootcamp in the summer, similar to SIP. However, the program is newer and has had a smaller footprint (Adams, ). Girlstart is also a 501(c)(3) that aims to increase girls’ engagement with STEM. Their target age group is younger than GWC’s, with their summer program aimed at 4th-8th grades. They are also regional and primarily run their programs in Texas (“Girlstart” 2021). Compared to these competing interventions, GWC is uniquely focused on computer science and has a significantly larger footprint—according to their website, 450,000 students have participated in their programs (“Girls Who Code” 2021). Because of their wide reach and influence, GWC is a particularly valuable intervention to study in relation to gender equity in computing.
I was unable to identify third-party published academic research about GWC. GWC themselves have presented on several occasions at the ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) (Stern, Reid, and Bancroft 2015; Clarke and Judd 2018; Cutter 2019). I will add to this existing body of knowledge in my following profile and portrayal of GWC. This is the first interview study of GWC, which allowed me to gain novel insight into the interpersonal, social, and psychological impacts of GWC. As a result, I believe this interview study to be an novel contribution to our current understanding of CS education.
Methodology
I originally set out to do a case study primarily based on online research and grounded in STS theory. I planned to conduct several supplemental interviews. However, I quickly discovered that the available literature was quite limited. After conducting my first two interviews, I realized that I could gain a wealth and depth of data from semi-structured interviews. It became clear that an interview study was the way forward to developing a portrayal of Girls Who Code.
My three original questions drove my inquiry and shaped my interview questions:
• How is Girls Who Code situated socially, culturally, politically, and financially?
• How is gender constructed in Girls Who Code’s marketing, charitable endeavors, and pedagogy?
• How can Girls Who Code or similar organizations measure their success?
All interviews were semi-structured, remote interviews between 30 and 45 minutes long. All interviews were conducted using Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I interviewed nine Girls Who Code instructors. Of these nine, six are current instructors and three are former. Additionally, one of these instructors is a former Girls Who Code student. The ages of informants ranged from 20s to 40s, and all informants identify as female or non-binary. An overview and list of pseudonyms I use for my informants is delineated in Table 1.
I utilized snowball sampling to recruit informants. My initial informants were acquaintances who are current or former instructors. An informant who is currently working as a teacher shared my contact information in the GWC summer program Slack workspace, and many informants volunteered to speak with me. Due to these recruitment methods, there is some level of selection bias that is introduced. My acquaintances may come from similar backgrounds as I do—however, I suggest that similarities bolster my ability to understand my informants from an emic perspective. Additionally, there is a self-selection bias among the informants recruited on Slack; no compensation was provided for this study, and as a result people who are enthusiastic about GWC and want to talk about the organization were most likely to sign up. However, in response to all potential selection bias, I argue that due to the significant variety of programs and diversity of backgrounds and experiences within the Girls Who Code organization, there is no sample that is ‘representative’ of all experiences.
A limitation of this interview study is the lack of informants who are recent or current students of GWC. This is primarily due to the challenges and obstacles of interviewing minors. While interviewing instructors only was sufficient for this study, future research on GWC should include the student perspective.
Table 1. Overview of informants’ involvement with Girls Who Code

Table 1. Overview of informants’ involvement with Girls Who Code

Findings
Community, Support, and 'Sisterhood'
A common theme discussed by all my informants was the utmost importance of providing students with a supportive community. According to many of my informants, giving the students a community that supports women and gender minorities in STEM is the most important goal, with the actual coding technical skills being secondary. A few of my informants (P2, P4, P8) are alumni of GWC, similar high school programs, or women’s colleges, and each stated that they do not know if they themselves would have pursued STEM if they were introduced to it in a male-dominated space. P2 said that the community and mentorship provided by GWC was highly influential in her decision to pursue a career in software engineering—GWC introduced her to people who “looked [and] thought like [her], who [she] could relate to.” Overall, these informants believe that fostering a supportive environment is what is most helpful for their students.
GWC fosters community building by integrating ‘Sisterhood activities’ into both SIP and SPP. Informants provided several examples of activities, including “ice breakers” (P4, P6, P9), playing music (P8, P9), and creating collaborative playlists (P8). According to P8, the intention of these activities is to help students “get to know each other” and have “more fun.” In one of her classrooms, P8 noticed that many of her students were fans of South Korean pop music (K-pop), so she incorporated this interest in community-building activities and ensured that she played the music that they liked.
‘Sisterhood’ is one of the three core values of GWC, as stated on their website (“Girls Who Code” 2021), and their commitment to community building is supported by my informants. However, there is an innate tension between the gendered language of “girls” and “sisterhood” and the goal of gender inclusivity. This tension is discussed in the following section.

Gender Identity and Inclusivity
While the organization is called Girls Who Code, their programs are open to non-binary and gender minority students as well. Sisterhood is also prominently centered by the national organization. I asked my participants if and how gendered language and gender identity are part of the materials they teach. P1 and P3, who were instructors for clubs, said that gender was not explicitly part of the materials they taught. This is consistent with other data I gathered which suggests that clubs are run independently by volunteers who may choose to write their own curriculum. P1 said that, while their teaching materials were not gendered, her club chose women as guest speakers so that their students could visibly see women with careers in tech.
Gender is more prominently centered by the national organization in the curriculum they write for SIP and SPP. As discussed in the previous section, ‘sisterhood’ is one of the three main values of GWC, community-building activities are called sisterhood activities, and the organization is named for girls. Some of my informants suggested that the visibility of women in tech is also highly valued in the summer programs. P6 and P9 discussed how the SPP curriculum includes a “women in tech” spotlight which features women currently working in tech and aims to show students “the paths they can take” (P9). P9 also expressed a desire to teach students about Ada Lovelace to show that women in tech is not “a new thing.”
Several informants expressed that GWC is in a transitory period away from gendered language in some contexts. P8 stated that, in trainings, she was encouraged “not to call students ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’.” Several informants said they prefer to call their students ‘students’. P8 reported that some of her students have said they don’t like the term ‘sisterhood activity’ and that teachers have used various alternatives, such as fellowship activity or community activity. On the contrary, some informants suggest that GWC is reclaiming and redefining ‘sisterhood’ as an emblem of solidarity. One informant, Skylar*, is non-binary and trans and offers a more informed perspective on this topic (though it is not the only valid one). They personally are not bothered by the term ‘sisterhood’, though they recognize that others may not feel the same way. They said that it “doesn’t feel as contradictory as it seems” and that GWC “is needed” because the number of women in CS “has been declining” in recent history. They also recognized that “gendering is an issue, but there is a need for this kind of organization focused on gender minorities in STEM.” They suggest that the idea behind the sisterhood value is that all the students work together and support each other—that is, the “sentiment is solidarity.”

Unequal Support for Clubs Versus Summer Programs
There was a significant disparity in the level of support from the national organization between clubs and summer programs, as described by informants. Clubs are entirely volunteer-run, and P2 described them as “very grassroots” as opposed to SIP, which is “more formal.” Teens or adults can start a club in their own community by registering with the national organization, who will provide some budget and curriculum materials. However, this level of support appeared to be insufficient—P2 said her club “had to do a lot of fundraisers” in order to meet their financial needs. Additionally, the curriculum provided by GWC may not meet the needs of the students. P3 described how her club felt they needed to completely rewrite the curriculum in order to meet their students’ needs and expectations. The most significant change was that they changed the programming language used from Scratch (provided by GWC) to Python. Scratch is a visual programming language aimed at children ages 8–16 (Resnick
et al. 2009). P3 taught the Scratch curriculum in her first semester teaching with GWC but found that in the end-of-semester surveys, the students reflected that they expected and wanted to learn a textual programming language. In response to this feedback, P3’s club rewrote the curriculum in Python. Additionally, they revised the order concepts were introduced, e.g. introducing if/then statements before while loops.
In contrast, many of of the summer program instructors praised the quality of the curriculum writing. Additionally, summer instructors are being paid a good wage (P4) and have felt very supported by full-time staff from GWC (P4, P5, P6, P7, P8). SIP students may also have access to better support; as referenced in Background, students in financial need are offered a $300 living stipend. Additionally, if a student does not have access to a computer, GWC will give them a laptop to keep (P4). Furthermore, SIP receives significant financial support from their corporate sponsors, making SIP drastically better funded than clubs. The resources offered by corporate sponsors will be further discussed in the following section. Overall, my informants describe a distinct disparity between the support provided for clubs and that for summer programs. A question for further inquiry might be how GWC could expand the support they have shown summer program instructors to the volunteers and students in clubs.
* Skylar is a pseudonym. I have chosen to use a different pseudonym in this section than in Table 1 to ensure that Skylar cannot be identified based on their gender identity.
Discussion
GWC and Feminism
GWC’s pedagogy has parallels with the feminist solidarity pedagogical model as described by Mohanty (Mohanty 2003). While Mohanty discusses relationships between local and global, I suggest that the relationship between women and non-binary genders can be analyzed similarly. As previously discussed in Findings, GWC has expanded and redefined the meaning of the word ‘sisterhood’ for some. Skylar, my informant, suggested that the sentiment behind the word is solidarity. Like the feminist solidarity model, sisterhood as solidarity foregrounds the “directionality of power” (521)—while women and non-binary people cannot be conflated, they do share in their positionality as gender minorities in the computing space. That is, in this context—that is, computing—women and non-binary people are linked in the face of a patriarchal power structure.

The Incongruity of Corporate Partnership
As previously discussed, SIP classrooms are run in close partnership with corporate sponsors. Historically, SIP has been hosted on-site at the partner’s office; during the Covid-19 pandemic, SIP has shifted to fully remote, and sponsors have had to find new ways to represent their companies. According to my informants who have worked with SIP this summer, this involvement has taken the form of career and professional skill workshops, such as resume writing (P5) or LinkedIn (P7). Other contributions include Q&A panels with company employees about internships or careers in tech (P8). Several informants noted that the presentations have included male engineers alongside female and non-binary engineers (P5, P8).
I have already thoroughly discussed the GWC value ‘sisterhood’, but another core value is ‘activism’. On the GWC website, this value is described as follows:
We’re not just preparing our girls to enter the workforce - we’re preparing them to lead it, to improve it, to completely and totally transform it. (“Girls Who Code” 2021)
One of the three projects that students in SIP and SPP are assigned is an “activist toolkit”—the project is to create a website that helps people learn how to support a particular cause. Students are encouraged to choose a cause they truly care about and have chosen some heavy topics, including maternal death, mental health, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (P4). Given that GWC’s mission is to intervene and propagate social change, it is logical that activism is a core value. However, I suggest that the GWC value of activism is incongruous with the goals of the corporate sponsors.
It is clear that the industry sponsors hold considerable financial and political power—they lend this power to GWC when they sponsor classrooms. Yet, the value of activism is in direct opposition to the hegemony demonstrated by industry sponsors. As stated by GWC, the purpose of activism is to overturn existing power structures that perpetuate inequity. In contrast, the interest of the corporate sponsor is to retain their position of power in a capitalist economy. This is a paradox for GWC—partnering with corporations provides them with the capital to actualize their mission, but they must in turn sanitize their activism to appease partners.
P4 suggests that some industry partners are sponsoring GWC because they are aware of a lack of gender diversity within their own organizations and are trying to fix their pipeline. One such example was recently reported on by news outlets. Activision Blizzard, one of the largest video game companies in the United States, was sued by the State of California for discrimination, abuse, and sexual harassment (Gurley, n.d.). According to the lawsuit, only 20% of the company’s employees are female. It had been reported only a few days earlier that Activision Blizzard is sponsoring an SIP classroom this summer (Eileen 2021b). The lawsuit alleges that internal complaints about the harassment were ignored by administration (Eileen 2021a). Are these the type of partners GWC wants to have? Is this the type of work environment students should be encouraged to join? When SIP returns to in-person, is this the kind of office campus GWC wants to physically host their students at? Blizzard is an example of a company gravely in need of reform, and while their partnership with GWC demonstrates a nominal desire to support women in tech, the harassment within their own company suggests that they may not be truly dedicated to gender equity in computing. It is a conundrum indeed—those companies which are most in need of gender diversity likely correlate with those which have the most rampant gender misconduct problems.
Conclusion
I now wish to consider the future of GWC. None of my informants could tell me about the outcomes of GWC. P2, who had been part of club administration, stated that her club did not track the students after they completed their course but offered that the national organization might. On the GWC website, I could not find statistics that indicated the specific impact of GWC. This does not mean that these statistics do not exist, but it is admittedly difficult to measure the impact a single organization can have on such a large, institutional level. So, that remains an open question—how can GWC and other similar organizations measure their success? Is it enough for the program to reach its students? How can we measure what happens to them beyond the program? I do not have answers at this time but encourage other researchers to reflect on these questions. How do we know if we are moving the needle?


Acknowledgements
I would like to express my deepest gratitude for my informants, without whom this project would not have been possible. I would like to thank Prof. Neha Kumar for her feedback and suggestions during this research work.
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