Want your daughter to catch on to coding? Start her early, and set an example.
We use ‘geek’ as a term of endearment. There are plenty of other female success stories in computing, but statistically speaking, there aren’t nearly enough geek girls. Girls can code every bit as well as boys – but they’re not learning how. Why is that? And what can we do to create a more encouraging environment for girls in tech?
The first computer programmer was a woman, but Ada Lovelace certainly wasn’t the last. Women have excelled in computing for years. Admiral Grace Hopper invented the first computer compiler, and Yahoo!’s CEO, Marissa Meyer, was the first woman engineer at Google.
The gender imbalance in computing education is unquestionable. Finding statistics about the minority status of women in computing is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Up in Canada, for example, MasterCard ran an Angus Reid survey of 1007 Canadian adults this summer. It found that only 18% who had considered a career in technology were women.
Almost one in three women who didn’t want a technology-focused career said that they didn’t think they had the skills, and one in 10 said that they were encouraged to develop them. A third of Canadians think that girls are encouraged to pursue other fields.
In the US, less than 15% of new bachelor’s degrees in computer science are awarded to women.
There are some women who buck the trend, though. Kiki Prottsman, a computer science and structure at the University of Oregon, was the original geek girl, learning technology early on. Her father told himself computing to make ends meet, and one day, she was home sick. He gave her a book on BASIC.
“He sat me down with the book and said ‘figure out how to program this thing’,” she recalls. “By the time my mum got home, I’d made a game that if you entered someone’s eye and hair color, it would tell you which member of the family it was.”
Prottsman has spent her professional life drawing kids into computing education, but girls begin dropping out of the picture early on, she says.
She runs ThinkerSmith, a non-profit based in Eugene, Oregon that teaches children how to code by abandoning lecture-style classes in favor of hands-on experience.
“Through Thinkersmith, I’ve talked clubs of all ages,” she says. “When we’re advertising computer science to children in first through fourth grade, it’s equal.”
Girls and boys alike flock to these courses, eager to pick up the basics of programming, but from grade 6, (around 11 years old), girls are less likely to get involved in computing, continues Prottsman. “When we get to middle school, the girls drop-off.”
Kids are developing socially around that age, and it becomes far more important to fit in. Anything seen as ‘uncool’ becomes a threat to your social status – and that includes being a geek girl, because among certain younger female age groups, geekery is still not trendy.
This social anxiety can extend to the family unit, too, warns Prottsman. Little kids enjoy doing neat things that even their parents don’t know about. It gives a sense of agency to kids who are still establishing their position as individuals in the world.
Things change as kids get older. “When you start to get into things that you never saw your mum doing, that no one else in the family does, then you start to get those doubts,” she explains.
Eventually, this becomes a self-perpetuating problem. If girls don’t opt into technical pursuits such as coding, they don’t develop their skill sets, while boys who take the classes typically do.
“You’ll be in these classes and girls will be in their first term of computer science,” she says. “And they will see these guys that know everything, and they’re giving these long-winded answers. And the girls are comparing themselves to those very vocal few.”
Kids in kindergarten to grade five aren’t thinking that way. Everyone is on an equal playing field. This means two things: parents interested in raising technically-savvy girls should start them young. And they should be sensitive and responsive to these social pressures.
Bucking the trend
Melissa Sariffodeen, co-executive director of Toronto-based nonprofit Ladies Learning Code, has some ideas about handling those social pressures and inspiring girls to get involved.
Focusing on broader goals is important, because it enables girls to tackle other opportunities, using programming as a means, rather than an end in itself. “We’re trying to show them how it can fit into their life,” she explains.
There are positive signs, as tech firms begin to do just that. Google’s Made With Code campaign, which specifically engages geek girls with inspiring examples of how they can change the world around them with code.
Vanessa, Ashley, Rosie and Magarita in Palo Alto, for example, coded a mobile app to co-ordinate community cleanup.
“The other important thing is giving them more role models, so for every four learners we have one female,” Sariffodeen says. “The idea is to surround these girls with a lot of strong female role models who are cool and relevant to them.”
Ladies Learning Code runs two types of coding classes for young people: Kids Learning Code is a co-ed class for 6-17 year-olds, but Girls Learning Code is purely for girls in the same age group. The organisation is also running a national Girls Learning Code day, conducting girls-only workshops in 16 cities across Canada.
Alice Marwick is assistant professor at Fordham University and author of the Tiara.org feminist technology blog. She believes that coding classes exclusively to girls are useful thing.
“One of the problems right now is that programming is seen as male, and young men are territorial about it,” she argues. “It’s empowering for women to be judged on their intelligence and capability rather than their looks and personality. Being able to experiment in places where girls won’t be attacked or talked down to.”
Gender harrassment in programming classes happens, as Rikki Endsley’s letter to her daughter’s high school compsci teacher illustrates, and it can be devastating to even the most steely-nerved geek girls.
Dedicated classes for geek girls
Sariffodeen’s organisation has been running segregated coding classes for geek girls alongside its coed classes for two years. The boy slots always fill up first, whereas the girls one don’t always sell out at all, she says, arguing that it underscores the issue.
The real drop-off in signups among girls happens after 13 years old, supporting Prottsman’s suggestion that the problem gets worse as girls get older.
Another problem, though, is that in many schools, there are almost no resources allocated to either gender for computer programming, placing them both in the same boat.
On National Girls Learning Code day, there will be a workshop in my kids’ city. But for the rest of the year, there is no school curriculum for coding, and the only computing education focuses on using PCs as tools in other disciplines.
My daughter will no doubt be happy at the opportunity to learn for a day, but my boy has no such luxury, outside of my own extra curricular teaching.
Faced with a general lack of resources, along with a male-dominated coding culture, what can parents do to encourage their daughters to become geek girls by promoting computing and coding education?
“Be a support system,” says Prottsman, advising parents not to let their own lack of technical knowledge impact their kids’ confidence. “I see a lot of parents asking ‘are you sure you can do this?’”
Technology can be scary for many parents who haven’t been exposed to it, but taking a little time to learn the basics can help them to speak the language when encouraging their children, and especially the girls.
“It’s about taking an interest,” says Prottsman. “When the parents want to see what they created, it means so much more.”
But above all, when trying to give your daughter access to as many options as possible in her education, it’s worth taking more time to explain to her that computing is a real option. That means exposing her to technology early, and reinforcing it often.