Bringing Girls Into the Science-Major Pipeline

Brian Taylor

July 13, 2011

Take a look at the poster advertising a summer camp (below left). It was designed by the computer department of an American university. (I'm hiding the name to protect the innocent.) Do you think this poster communicates how much fun the camp will be? Does it convey the excitement of creating animated movies, designing virtual worlds? Look at the main message at the top. Do you think that kids in middle school are that worried about preparing for the future? Especially during summer vacation? Will the poster grab the attention of its intended audience, or even their parents?

The answer to all of those questions? "Unlikely." Yet posters like this are created every day at colleges across the country. The programs, classes, or special lectures they announce are often fascinating, but who would know that? Summer outreach programs, like the tech camp in the poster, usually involve months of hard work to organize. Yet the same level of detail is not reflected in the marketing. Can you imagine Apple introducing a new iPad, or Nike launching a new shoe design, with an ad like this? Apple and Nike know that to get people excited about a product or program, they must first understand how to capture the target audience's attention and pique its curiosity.

That need is acute in science-pipeline recruitment at the K-12 and college levels. In particular, the often-misunderstood field of computer science is a good example of a group in need of a good public-relations campaign. For at least a couple of decades, colleges have made significant efforts to increase the number of students majoring in computer science and to broaden participation in the field by attracting more women and minorities. Yet compared with a decade ago, enrollments in computer science have dropped more than 40 percent. And far fewer women than men pursue computer-science degrees.

That is not simply disappointing. It has serious implications for U.S. national and economic security. While the impact on America's computer industry may be obvious, the dearth of computer professionals has alarming consequences for all fields of science, technology, and industry that rely on computer technologies—and name one that doesn't.

But what does a poster have to do with all this? A lot, actually. Image is important. As long as teenagers believe that computer science is boring, difficult, and antisocial, they won't choose it as a career. But existing stereotypes can be challenged by changing the emphasis—by introducing computer professionals as the lively, interesting people that most of them are, by demonstrating that computer science is an exciting field that has a major impact on just about every aspect of human life, and by communicating all of that to young people using language and images that resonate with them.

WGBH, in Boston, and the Association for Computing Machinery, with support from the National Science Foundation, recently joined forces to transform the image of computing among one of the most underrepresented demographic groups in computer science: young women. Working with marketing professionals, the New Image for Computing team is creating a set of messages to resonate with teenage girls and to portray computing in a positive way. Those messages, and the resources and Web site developed around them (see, will be available for use by any group or institution interested in encouraging collegebound high-school girls to consider computer science as an undergraduate major and career choice.

The concept: The program was conceived as a mini "Be All You Can Be" campaign for computer science. That iconic message helped remake the U.S. Army in 1979 and for the next 20 years—an unheard of lifespan for an advertising slogan. "Be All You Can Be" succeeded in attracting new recruits, including some top high-school graduates. Instead of centering on the Army as the previous messaging campaign had ("This Is the Army"), "Be All You Can Be" appealed to its audience's dreams and aspirations. Dropouts and degree holders alike, it turned out, wanted to be all they could be.

Clearly, no college has the advertising budget of the U.S. Army. But imagine if all stakeholders—including college groups, corporate human-resource departments, professional membership organizations, high-school teachers, guidance counselors, computing professionals—banded together to change the conversation about computing. To de-emphasize the geek factor. To demystify the field. To stress the applications of computing rather than the need for algorithmic logic. The resulting effort might be more powerful than any advertising campaign.

The process: Finding the right messages for New Image for Computing meant conducting some deep research on collegebound high-school girls. Working with two professional marketing firms from New York, the group created a national online survey. One thousand girls responded.

The questions were wide-ranging: What careers interested them? What elements of a career were most important? What existing opinions did they have of computer science? The researchers also held several in-person focus groups to ask the girls questions and learn more about their behaviors and interests: What do they read? What do they watch on television? What Web sites do they visit? What electives do they take? What worries them most? Who are their role models?

From the outset, the researchers ran into challenges that forced them to reconsider what they thought they knew about their target audience. Even in selecting an official title for the initiative, the New Image for Computing team got it wrong. Using its initial research, the team had winnowed the title ideas down to three: Break Code, Dot Diva, and Hit Start. Everybody on the team loved Break Code, especially the more than two dozen computing professionals who served as advisers to the project.

Which title did the girls like? Dot Diva, of course. To them, the word "diva" was neither negative nor frivolous—rather, it suggested maturity and sophistication, a good thing among aspirational young women. They thought it connected technology with fashionable things, and they felt that the idea of a computer "diva" was cool. There was also the added benefit that Dot Diva, unlike Break Code or Hit Start, gave the project a personality.

The next challenge was defining a Dot Diva, which required an in-depth process to develop and test the initiative's main messages. Once again, the newly named Dot Diva team turned to its research, particularly those answers that revealed which characteristics of a career were most important to collegebound girls. Using several of the key themes that emerged, the team tested several slogans. Ultimately, the project tag line—chosen by the girls, largely because it used the word "we" and emphasized the importance of making a difference in the world—became: "We're young women with the power and passion to make a difference. We believe in the potential of computing to build a better world."

The look and feel of the project was as important as the words used in the messages. No detail was too small for the Dot Diva team to test on the target audience—background color, typeface choice, typeface color, layout. Visual appeal is crucial not only to grab your audience's attention, but also, in the case of computer science, to help break down stereotypes and negative opinions.

Lessons learned: There is an old advertising adage: Kodak sells film, but it doesn't advertise film—it advertises memories. Programs and institutions seeking to recast and reinvigorate their images would do well to remember that while they are providing an education, they are also offering young people the means to explore their interests and make a difference in the world. Dot Diva is selling computer science, but it's not advertising computer science. It's advertising an exciting future of collaborative work and passionate commitment to making the world a better place. Why? First, because it's true, and second, because our research told us that is what matters to our audience.

It's lesson No. 1 from the Dot Diva experience: Whether your project is small or large, know your audience. And you don't need to hire a marketing firm from Manhattan. For the price of a round of snacks, you can convene a couple of focus groups and gather a wealth of data.

Lesson No. 2: Test every communication document, whether print or online, with your target audience. Then redesign and test, test again.

Lesson No. 3: Assume nothing. One of the classic missteps in trying to attract students to computer science lies in the fact that people in the field are often the ones who design and write the communication brochures and recruitment pamphlets. They often assume, misguidedly, that the messages that resonate with them will also appeal to their target audience. That is rarely the case.

And so we return to that Tech Camp poster. After running it through the Dot Diva filter, the team created a couple of alternatives. The winning design, above, which is informed by extensive research into the target audience, gets it right. 

Nancy Linde is manager of research and development for educational outreach at WGBH, in Boston.