A Code of Confidence

Jennifer Compton is helping fight the gender gap in technology

Published in 2017 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2017

There’s no telling how different Jennifer Compton’s life would be had she not taken a job as a lifeguard 30 years ago. The kids she watched were in Girls Incorporated of Sarasota County, part of a national nonprofit that empowers more than 140,000 girls each year. At 16, Compton had never been exposed to the part of her community that didn’t have the advantages her family enjoyed.

“I thought I was going to a summer job, which it was, but it also became very evident that amazing things were happening,” she says. “There was one girl in particular who crawled into my heart—she’d literally sit in my lap in the lifeguard chair. [She had a] single mom who was a victim of domestic violence. We became very close. We still exchange Christmas cards.”

The girl became a licensed practical nurse, the first in her family to obtain post-secondary education. “Her mom told me in no uncertain terms that, without Girls Inc., her life would be very different. It really showed me the power of what goes on at Girls Inc.”

Now Compton is on the board and a “lifer” at Sarasota’s Girls Inc., which provides after-school and summer education to about 400 girls. While her extended tenure as president is coming to a close this year, Compton has undoubtedly left a mark—especially in the area of technology.

A few years ago, her son, Jack, was in fourth grade “and lucky enough to get into the technology classroom, which was a pilot program at the time,” Compton says. He came home excited one day about a character he’d created by computer coding. “I was blown away. When I went to law school, my husband and I had a hand-me-down computer from my parents, so coding was totally foreign to me. So that sparked my interest.”

The fuel came in the form of a restless night and a book about women’s self-assurance with a serendipitous title. “I woke up in the middle of the night, as I often do, and my mind was running. I’d been reading before I went to sleep, and my thoughts intersected. The book was The Confidence Code,” she recalls. This led to an epiphany: What if Girls Inc. were to teach coding? 

“A lot of our girls don’t have access to technology other than at the center,” Compton says. “They don’t have the luxury of a desktop at home, let alone a tablet or smartphone. So what if we enhanced our technology and did this for our girls? Forget about opening a window; let’s open the door.”

At that point, Compton was unaware of the push for diversity in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math. “But I got there,” she says. “Despite the fact that tech jobs are one of the fastest-growing areas, girls are being left behind, and it’s only getting worse.” 

Between 2008 and 2018, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 1.4 million computing-related jobs will have opened in the U.S. But women are on pace to fill just 42,000 of them; that’s 3 percent.

Her idea to remedy that, Project Code, launched in spring 2015 at the Ringling College Library Association  Town Hall Lecture Series with a speech by Katty Kay, co-author of The Confidence Code.

“By summer, we had five weeks of technology and two weeks of coding at our summer camp, and it was a huge success,” Compton says. “Then we started hearing about the Hour of Code in public schools, and Google did the whole Made with Code program. It was a movement that we were in the forefront of and got caught up in, in a very good way.”

So good, in fact, that Microsoft granted Girls Inc. $60,000 in software, and also lent employees and space for its 2016 camp. Girls from kindergarten to eighth grade have access to the outreach programs. 

“During the school year, every single girl is learning computer skills and coding—even the kindergartners,” Compton says. “You can’t code if you can’t read, so they learn to do it with their bodies. Instructors use taped-off boxes and teach the girls how to maneuver through a grid to mimic the way a computer coder gives instructions.

“People always ask how I define success; and, to me, it’s any girl that we can keep doing well in school, exploring careers they otherwise wouldn’t have known about, and pursuing some form of post-secondary education. If we see any girls go into a STEM field that otherwise would not have, that’ll be a good day.”

 


 

(Lack of) Diversity in Tech

The breakdown of gender and ethnicity at major companies

(in %)

 Female/Male* 

 White 

 Asian 

 Latino 

 Black 

U.S. Population

51/49

64

4

16

12

World Population (2015)  

49.5/50.5

 

 

 

 

Facebook & Instagram

33/67

52

38

4

2

Amazon

39/61

48

13

13

21

Apple 

32/68

56

19

12

9

Google & YouTube

31/69

59

32

3

2

Microsoft

26/74

58

30

5

4

Pinterest

42/58

49

43

2

1

Twitter 

37/63

57

32

4

3

U.S. Companies

19/81

68

10

10

2

Fortune 500 CEOs

4/96

83

2

2

1

 

Sources: Company Equal Opportunity Employment reports (2016), Fortune.com, The World Bank. 

*Gender figures are global; race/ethnicity is U.S.-only

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