To get more women technology leaders, let’s start by fixing summer camp

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Shereen Shermak, chief executive of Boston’s Launch Angels, shares her thoughts on how to get more girls interested in — and sticking with — technology, starting with a youth staple: Summer Camp.

On a recent morning, like many parents, I called to check in on the new camp I’d recently signed my daughter up for. It is a well-respected programming camp that offered a module based on the popular game Minecraft, a video game many parents have to limit for their kids because it is so engaging.

It turns out that Minecraft also makes for an excellent learning tool. My daughter was ridiculously excited about the week at camp.

While I was speaking with the camp’s representative, I happened to ask if there were any other girls in her class. There were none.

I thought about it and called back and asked if there would be any female counselors at the camp. That week, the camp rep said that there would be one for the teenage camp, but none for the little kids.

“Are there any other little girls in any of the other classes for her to interact with at lunch?” I asked.

Not in the entire camp that week.

I hated doing it, but I switched my daughter to a different programming class at another location that had a few girl students and female counselors.

After I hung up, I was reminded of a similar experience of my own 30 years ago when I went to camp to learn BASIC and robotics. I was 16 at the time and much better able to handle being a girl among boys. I had been passing by them in math and science for a decade by then.

The problem is not the little kids; many little girls are playing Minecraft and in theory would want to spend a week on it. Adult women are a much larger demographic of gamers than boys under the age of 17, so we can’t say gaming is inherently male.

Carnegie Mellon University turned their engineering school around in only 5 years, going from 7 percent girls to nearly half. Maybe we need to take a closer look at what CMU did.

The other players in this equation are parents. There are many reasons not to go to such a camp — expense, location, travel plans. But all of these reasons apply to both boys and girls.

These parents are not alone — the US as a whole substantially trails the global average of about one-third of women engineering graduate, although individual schools like MIT recently started to exceed that number.

In parsing out the issues, the most bothersome is that this camp will, in theory, be shaping who will potentially be going to engineering school ten years from now, and who are young programmers will be 20 years from now.

Can we just get some girls to camp for a week to build up their confidence in programming and see if they are interested in doing more?

Note that the camp had tried to attract girls in all of its messaging, pictures, etc., but often with girls, you have to specifically invite them. So camp administrators need to specifically target local schools and make sure that a diverse group of students (and parents) are aware of the opportunities.

It would be terrific if the corporate community could step up and sponsor additional seats for girls as well.

Everyone seems to be frustrated that women aren’t making it down to the other end of the funnel, moving from engineering and design to C-level positions like chief executive or chief technology officer. For this to happen it’s important that more girls get (a fun and exciting!) early start such as one that a camp focused on Minecraft might offer.

Shereen Shermak is the chief executive at crowd funding firm Launch Angels. Previously, she helped found Boston startups Buyside FX and Fashionplaytes. With degrees from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Shermak has also worked at StateStreet and New York City’s Division of Economic and Financial Opportunity.