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Getting Girls into Tech: 5 Ways to do Better

A special look at what helps encourage girls to get into the tech field – from the vantage point of high school student, Noor Madhoun

Many new classroom initiatives and programs are popping up to encourage girls to code and get into technology. These programs are aimed at high school students in the hopes of leading them into  a career in technology. Some of these programs are more successful than others – drawing from interviews with other Canadian and Syrian high school students, this piece explores what makes some programs better than others.

Getting girls into technology is a hot topic, made even more so lately following the recent leak of a scandalous internal memo by a former Google employee. While that memo debated the reasons for gender imbalance in the tech industry, the fact remains, even in a country like Canada, there are far fewer women employed compared to men. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, of those Canadians who are “computer and information systems professionals” just 23.1 percent are women.

Many initiatives aim to balance gender diversity. These range from efforts by large companies to smaller grassroots projects. Computer maker, Dell, for example, offers young women classes on  coding and software development to spark creativity in the field. The response from girls is great and immediate. Not only are the participants engaged, but the effect is magnified as they share their experiences with friends and family. A simple workshop can have a lasting impact on girls and encourages them to pursue a career in tech.

One of the most influential computer education programs for girls is Girls Who Code. The program began as a response by founder Reshma Saujani to address how girls were discouraged from entering a male-dominated field. Saujani launched an online learning platform to attract girls between the ages of 13 to 17 to learn tech skills such as coding and software development. The goal was to encourage girls to no longer feel uncomfortable or intimidated in being part of a predominantly male environment.

Most of these initiatives tend to be based in the United States or Europe. While accessible online, there are a great number of girls around the world who face obstacles in using these resources. For example, young women in Syria face both linguistic and access challenges in using online learning portals created in English and requiring stable, high-speed internet connections. For Wijdan (13) and Ragdad (12), who only have a couple of hours Internet access per day, using a site like Code Academy to self-study is out of the question. Given their situation, technology provides an important connection with the outside world, but learning how to make it work is less important, as they struggle to keep their education moving forward in the midst of war. These girls understand how to use the Internet, and are aware of risks such as hacking, stalking and bullying – but that’s about it. While that is more than many of their peers, it isn’t enough to lead to a future in the tech sector. Programs like SalamaTech aim to help fill in gaps, but need funding to expand beyond digital safety to help in countries like Syria.

In Canada, we have a different problem. Most of the peers I interviewed use the internet daily to pass time, mostly on social media. This ranges from a couple of minutes or hours at a time to all day long. This has caused such dependency that many girls would be completely lost without access to the internet. This high level of usage hasn’t necessarily translated into a deeper understanding of what’s behind the technology. Depending on the school, options for learning about tech vary. In my experience, for example, early education in elementary school covered software basics like using Microsoft Word – from grades 6 to 9. As of grade 9, our exposure to tech education remains very limited and has included a bit of basic coding. Not one of the peers I interviewed has yet felt inspired to pursue a job in technology because of how “soul crushingly boring” they perceive that path to be – in large part because of their experience in these classes.

So what would make these young women change their minds? Based on these interviews, below are a few suggestions for improving tech courses such that girls might want to pursue a career in that sector:

  1. Add more female teachers: Having more female teachers inspires girls with role models to show them that a woman can be in the tech field. (It also helps increase the number of women employed in the industry – a win-win!).
  2. Start younger – and continue longer: Introducing girls to tech at a much younger age will make working in the field like second nature. This idea was championed by British computing pioneer, Dame Stephanie Shirley, in a recent post for The Guardian, as part of a series encouraging women to share their experience in the tech sector. Dame Stephanie called for kids as young as 2-years old to be taught. Coding is like a language, so it makes sense. Exposing girls at a younger age to technology will also help them better understand how things like the internet work – which is increasingly important given how central it will be to their lives. Early education would also provide a good foundation for continued learning in later grades. Finally, lessons should be extended until grade 12 instead of stopping at grade 9, as it does in some schools.
  3. Make it interesting: Often students are taught the same coding or software year after year. It’s boring and only one aspect of technology. A greater variety of tech learning should be offered to students, such as lessons about the hardware behind it, robotics, or artificial intelligence.
  4. Create safe, gender-neutral spaces: Give young women a judgment free space where they feel more comfortable trying out different things, free from the pressure of fitting into a specific role.
  5. Introduce women already in the field: Bringing female speakers who work in tech already to talk about their jobs and how they got there can help girls see a pathway forward. This shows girls different perspectives of women in the tech sector and will  get them interested in jobs possibilities.

While efforts to engage young women in technology should be commended, they still have a long way to go to make girls want to work in tech. The courses in technology available to many girls is still not yet developed enough to inspire girls to want pursue a job in tech or really understand what they are doing. Yet technology is an increasingly important part of daily life. Most girls in Canada spend hours on their phones using the Internet, not knowing what they could actually be doing with it. Programs that help girls get into technology should definitely be fostered, but they must tackle it from the vantage point of young girls – and start as early as possible.

About the Author

Noor Madhoun is completing a volunteer summer research project at The SecDev Foundation, a non-profit in Ottawa, Canada that fosters digital well-being for a brighter interconnected world. Noor’s research has focused on how digital technologies are used by and for women and youth to improve their lives. Noor will start Grade 10 this fall.