Ellen Spertus has spent decades on the front lines of the battle to bring more women into computing.

In 1991, while studying computer science at MIT, Spertus published a paper called, "Why are there so few Female Computer Scientists."

The truth is, the Mills College professor and Google senior research scientist could write the same paper today. "It was in 1990 that I started getting involved in this and I was on all sorts of committees and projects, and we thought we'd bring the number up and instead the number went down," Spertus says of the percentage of women studying computer science. "It's very discouraging."

Ellen Spertus, the Mills College computer science professor, who is on sabbatical, is working with a Google team on Blockly, a programming platform that
Ellen Spertus, the Mills College computer science professor, who is on sabbatical, is working with a Google team on Blockly, a programming platform that allows beginning coders to drag and drop chunks of code into a program, rather than having to precisely type every letter and character. The idea is to make programming more fun -- and less intimidating -- for those (including girls) who might not otherwise be drawn to the field. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) ( Dai Sugano )

But Spertus hasn't given up. She's currently on sabbatical from Mills while working at Google with a team developing Blockly -- a simple platform that allows neophyte programmers to drag and drop chunks of code into their applications, rather than having to type every single keystroke perfectly in order for their programs to run properly.

The idea is to attract kids who don't historically gravitate to programming, including girls, by building their confidence and understanding of computing basics.

"Most computer programming is done with words," Spertus, 45, explains. "You have to get the semicolons and the braces right. The advantage of these block programming languages is students don't need to be struggling with syntax at the same time they're struggling with concepts."

Spertus loves programming and has since she was a little girl. Her early exposure to the craft is the answer to the question: With so few women entering computing fields, what made you different?

"My father went to MIT and we had computer terminals in our home before personal computers were available," Spertus says. "I learned how to program from my brother and dad. I went to one of the first computer camps. I was something of an atypical girl."

But now she'd like to see her path, or at least a path that includes exposure to computer science, as typical for girls. Besides Blockly, Spertus does her part by speaking to young girls at schools. She tells them that computer science is empowering, almost like magic or wizardry. As for how to learn to become a CS wizard?

Spertus says she explains to girls: "I'm sorry to tell you that Hogwarts isn't real -- but MIT is."

Contact Mike Cassidy at womenincs@mercurynews.com or 408-859-5325. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.