Why We Need Coding Clubs for Girls

Girls Who Code was born out of my experience in politics.

Girls Who Code was born out of my experience in politics.

When you’re running for office, you go to a lot of schools, and you meet a lot of parents and kids. In 2010, I was running for US Congress in a district that included both the Upper East Side and the Queensbridge Houses, the latter of which is the largest public housing in North America. So, I was really able to witness the technology gap up close and personal. I would travel to private schools on the Upper East Side and see robotics labs, and then I would travel to Queensbridge and see a single girl working at a computer in the basement of Bishop Mitchell G. Taylor’s Center of Hope International church.

I lost that race, but when I became the Deputy Public Advocate at the Office of the New York City Public Advocate, I began to think about initiatives that pertained to the work I wanted to do on issues like urban entrepreneurship and economic opportunity. It was through this process that I came up with Girls Who Code.

From a policy perspective, it is clear that many new jobs are going to be in the computing related fields, but women earn just 12 percent of computer science degrees. That just didn’t make sense for me.

I come from a family of engineers. My father and my mother are both engineers. Not only that, but many of my mother’s friends are engineers. In India, there is a movement, mostly promoted by policymakers, that pushes children to go into the science and technology fields. I was and still am curious as to why that never happened in America. I thought, “What would happen if we put 20 girls in a classroom in a technology company? What if we challenged some of the major issues that are preventing young women from going into the technology space?” That was the main question that inspired the creation of Girls Who Code.

I was that little girl that was terrified of math or science. I always thought that I wasn’t smart enough, or I imagined that I would not like it. I wasn’t attracted to it. And I really regret that I didn’t enter the field. I regretted it in my thirties when I became a policymaker, because I was fascinated by Boston creating a pothole app, and I wished I knew how to code something like that myself. I couldn’t, because I didn’t know how, and that was something that has always bothered me. Coding is a 21st century skillset that comes in handy regardless of what you want to do. It is probably 10 times in a day that I wish I could change a website, or build an app, or communicate on that level, but I don’t have that skillset.

I don’t really know the answer as to why there is a great gender divide, because there isn’t a proper study on the issue, but it’s fascinating. There were actually more women in engineering jobs in the seventies. There’s been a decline in women in technology, even though the jobs are there. And there’s no pay gap. It’s the one industry where there is no pay gap between the male and the female engineers. Also, computer science is a profession where engineers enjoy a lot of flexibility, so if we’re having conversations about work-life balance, this is the field. It has limitless potential.

Let’s talk about some of the issues that prevent girls from approaching the technology sphere. One: in the 1970s, 10 percent of doctors and lawyers were women. Now, 40 years later, that number is above 40 percent. Why? Grey’s Anatomy, Ally McBeal, ER. We are inundated with images in popular culture, and when those role models hit the mainstream, people are inspired and the fear dissipates. I decided I wanted to be a lawyer when I saw Jodie Foster in The Accused. We don’t see that with girls as far as female hackers. Arguably, Sandra Bullock, that was a great role model for girls in STEM, but she was the exception to the rule. When so many girls think of the computer sciences, they think of a nerdy guy that no one likes, typing on his computer. They think, “I don’t want to do that.”

Two: the Girl Scout Research Institute asked high school girls what they wanted to do with their lives, and above 75 percent said they wanted to “change the world.” But these girls have a hard time seeing the connection between technology and creating and making things. Little boys at ages two, three, and four, are encouraged to take their trucks apart, build things, create things, and develop things. We need to instill that maker mentality in girls at a very young age. And we don’t.

In January of 2011, I started thinking about Girls Who Code as a way to challenge those two principles. At first, I was just talking and meeting with people. I met with computer science teachers, with whom we developed our first curriculum. We asked, “Can we develop a curriculum that would really target young girls?” I spoke to people who had put together summer programs and fellowships, and everyone agreed that we should start with 20 students. We also found that, because of bureaucracy, it would be challenging to organize something as an afterschool program, but we discovered that summer programs were much easier to organize. We also decided that eight weeks was the amount of time that we needed, though we’ve managed to condense it to seven.

The idea of immersing the program within a technology company really made sense, because if you are trying to convince girls to get involved, being at a cool tech place would give them a taste of what it would be like to be a technologist. Interestingly enough, when we started the program, I decided gave the girls a stipend, because I thought I was going to have to pay them to be in an office for eight weeks in the summer, instead of playing at the pool. I thought I was going to have to give them an incentive. We soon found out we wouldn’t need to. Still, I didn’t know if the program was going to succeed. I hadn’t intended to build a movement with my first program. I just wanted to see what would happen if you put 20 girls in a classroom and you taught them how to code. Would they learn how to code? Would they like it? Suffice to say, we were really blown away our first summer.

We started with a very diverse set of girls. We had privileged girls who went to The Bronx High School of Science next to girls who just arrived in New York from Senegal two years ago. We had girls that had done a little bit of hacking on their own to girls who used a computer for five hours a week. We had a diversity in socio-economic backgrounds, experience, passions, and interests. Initially, we thought dropout rates could potentially be high. We did not have that problem at all. Each girl stuck with it, and they just fell in love with it. Best of all, they were good at it.

Four of the girls from 2012 who were seniors at the time have already declared majors or minors in computer science, and are at college right now doing that.100 percent of them said they were more likely to choose CS than they were before. The last two weeks of our eight-week program is to allow each of the girls to do a project. Our girls built things that were just tremendous. Khady built a website to teach computer science in 32 different languages, despite having to teach her to use a mouse the first week. Cora built an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant. Lesley started building websites for immigrant entrepreneurs in her community. Nikita made an app called Tree Hugger that she was invited to present at the White House Science Fair. These were amazing results that we simply could not have predicted. They all wanted to make things that were about making the community better. That was a big eye-opener for me. We don’t even know how amazing our world could be because we are not empowering our girls.

One of the most amazing things we found in our first year as well was that when the girls graduated, they said, “Oh my god. I found something amazing. I want to share it with people.” So, they started teaching their sisters, their parents, and their classmates. That’s where we decided to create the Girls Who Code Clubs. Our girls go back to their school, and are able to launch a club. That is our other product that we are focused on now. We want to reach as many girls as we possibly can. The Clubs allow us to build a pipeline. They become a feeder for our immersion program. We’ve reached about 600 girls so far in our Clubs, and we’re hoping to reach another 2500 this year. I have visited a several schools that run Club programs, and have come across so many great little girl geeks that are coding, building systems, and creating things. Oftentimes, it’s girls who are already interested in STEM, but they think they want to be doctors or scientists. They’ve just never been exposed to computer science before. It’s a whole new world for them, and they’re really excited about it.

From last year, about 7500 women graduated in computer science, and about 5000 girls took the AP computer science exam. So, even if we get half of our girls to do that, we will move the needle enormously. We are running 16 Summer Immersion programs this year. We only have 320 spots. We anticipate over 1000 applicants. We don’t want to turn anybody away. How do I get the girls who are not able to participate in our programs this year—how am I able to teach them? That’s something we really want to figure out.

Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit working to inspire, educate and equip young women with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities. They recently expanded their Summer Immersion program to Miami.