From Boulder to Washington D.C., Ruthe Farmer is making it possible for women of all ages to get involved with technology — one student at a time.
After eight years with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), most recently serving as chief strategy and growth officer, headquartered at CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, Farmer recently transitioned to a role as Senior Policy Advisor for Tech Inclusion at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
While at NCWIT, Farmer led the K-12 Alliance, a coalition of national organizations, including nonprofits, corporations, teachers’ groups and curriculum advocates, all working to increase girls’ participation and access to computer science, a crucial part of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.
“I put a big focus on technology and engineering because those are currently the least represented STEM areas in K-12 education,” said Farmer. “Every student in the nation takes biology, everyone takes chemistry…but by 2018, 51 percent of the STEM jobs available will be in computing fields.”
Prior to coming aboard full-time with NCWIT, Farmer spearheaded technology and engineering education for the Girl Scouts of the USA, where she expanded the organization’s traditional focus on outdoor activities to include career-centric education programs in engineering, robotics and the automotive industry.
At NCWIT, Farmer scaled up Aspirations in Computing beginning in 2008, which is now a talent pipeline for young women from kindergarten all the way through grad school interested in computer science and engineering. The program, which began with just a few dozen students, has now expanded to more than 11,500 young women around the country, inspiring the hashtag #1morewomanintech, which resonates nationally.
Those involved in the program often go on to pay it forward by educating other female peers they’ve connected with, whether it’s a grad student mentoring an undergraduate, or a high-schooler mentoring a middle-schooler.
“For many of the girls, Aspirations in Computing is the first time they’ve had the opportunity to meet other girls who are also into technology,” said Farmer. “The program provides a sense of community.”
While sad to leave NCWIT, Farmer is excited about the opportunity to continue promoting women in tech from the White House. On January 30, 2016, President Obama announced the Computer Science for All Initiative, which aims to get more computer science into K-12 classrooms and boost participation from women and underrepresented minorities.
The task is not without its challenges. The highly localized district-by-district nature of U.S. public K-12 schools means that top-down directives can be difficult to implement universally. Currently, just one in four U.S. K-12 students have access to computer programming courses, and 22 states do not count those courses toward high school graduation requirements.
That’s why, Farmer says, her new role will focus on breaking stereotypes, forging partnerships in the education sector, and fostering cooperation between a vast constellation of federal agencies, corporate partners and nonprofit organizations. This will involve continuing to work on a grassroots level.
“It’s about coalition building and encouragement at a local level to make sure that all young women have the opportunity to prepare for careers in these fields,” she said. “Engineered products—from cars to phones to computers—have a tremendous influence on our day-to-day lives, and women can and should play a larger role in their design.”