Girls Learning Coding Is Key to Closing the Skills Gap

More than 80 percent of jobs in the next decade require some form of math or science knowledge so we can't afford to leave our girls behind.

This story is the fifth in a six part editorial series exploring the balance between student learning and job skills. We’re asking leaders and thinkers in education and technology fields: Can America educate its way out of the skills gap? This series is brought to you by GOOD, with support from Apollo Group. Learn more about our efforts to bridge the skills gap at Coding for GOOD.

I often tell the story of how the idea for Black Girls CODE was born from my dual passions as a mother and a woman of color in engineering. These two realities allowed me to understand in a very intimate and personal way the struggles that women experience as both innovators and leaders in the still very male-dominated world of STEM. And they inspired me to ensure that the next generation of girls become STEM entrepreneurs or find jobs at the company of their choice.

With more than 80 percent of the jobs in the next decade requiring some form of knowledge in math or science, we as a community and a nation and cannot afford to leave our girls—and girls of color—behind. Innovation will be the driving force for our worldwide economies over the next several decades, and we must provide our young women with the 21st century skills that will allow them to compete and thrive in a global and highly technical workplace.

As a female engineer, I was lucky to pursue my college degree during a boom in the recruitment for women in STEM fields. I was a gifted student in math and science, and my high school counselors encouraged me to consider studies in engineering. But as a young girl growing up in inner city Memphis, I knew absolutely nothing about engineering beyond the fact that it supposedly “paid well” and relied heavily on math and science.

To say my initiation into the field was a challenge would be an understatement. I struggled through four years of rigorous training in electrical engineering as one of only a handful of women in my discipline, and I chose a focus in an even less diverse concentration—power engineering. I then spent the next several decades fighting my way up from a role as an entry-level engineer to the management ranks in engineering environments and industrial settings with an over-abundance of testosterone. It was not an easy path or one I would necessarily choose for my own daughter.

In addition to being a woman in a leadership role operating in a decidedly male-dominated environment, I was faced with reconciling the complexities of the intersection of both my race and gender in my daily struggles to advance and be recognized for my accomplishments. While not mutually exclusive to be sure, my realities as a woman in tech are often very different than my realities as a person of color in the same often very non-ethnically diverse field.

The number of women engineers who choose computer science as a major in college has declined significantly since the mid-eighties, dropping from a high of around 30 percent to less than 12 percent today. Those figures for women of color—African/African–American, and Latina—are even lower at around 3 percent. It was due to these very discouraging statistics and my drive to change the dominant narrative, that I took a leap of faith and founded Black Girls CODE with the help of a group of three friends in April 2011.

We've ignited a movement which embodies my lofty visions for training a million girls of color to code in every state in the United States, Africa, and Latin America by the year 2040. While all girls should learn to code, as a woman of color raising a child of my own, I was all too aware that students from underrepresented backgrounds are very unlikely to have opportunities to learn tech skills in a program such as ours. So we made sure that Black Girls CODE would focus on addressing the needs of girls of color in our local community.

We started from very humble beginnings in the BayView Hunters Point section of San Francisco with 15 girls and no major funding. We reached out to women tech organizations in the Bay Area such as Women2.0, Railsbridge, and Women Who Code for volunteers and instructors, and were elated to see women from the local tech community come into our classes, work with students one-on-one over a six-week period, and open their minds to the beauty and power of computing.

These young students—who initially did not even understand the meaning of computer programming—blossomed before our eyes and eagerly devoured lesson after lesson in our first programming course, Scratch. They kept us scrambling to create even more challenging classes from week to week. These girls received mentoring and encouragement from female (and male) technologists from leading tech firms and even had an opportunity to write their names on the famed Facebook Wall of Fame. It was a life changing experience for many of the girls and the volunteers.

With just a little less than two years under our belts, Black Girls CODE is well on its way to achieving our goals. We have seen our program expand to more than 10 cities—such as Atlanta, New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and even Johannesburg, South Africa—and reach more than 800 students. With a cadre of more than 300 volunteers and technologists from every walk of life, we have built a movement to show that girls of color can and do code.

After a Black Girls CODE workshop at Spelman College in Atlanta the parent of a high school student wrote us a heartfelt letter of support and told us that her daughter stated that after attending “the [Black Girls CODE] workshop, she finally felt like she belonged and she was convinced she wanted to attend Spelman or Georgia Tech and major in computer science.”

Closing the gender and diversity gap in STEM is not something that will happen overnight, but with our passion and commitment to training girls and creating the tech leaders and founders of tomorrow, Black Girls CODE is dedicated to joining a community of changemakers to address this issue head on.

Black girl coding on the computer image via Shutterstock

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