This year wasn’t a month in before it became the year of the woman. On the 21st of January 2017, more than 4.2 million people marched for women’s rights, equality of pay and opportunity in the US. Globally, seven continents marched, to remind themselves and each other that women are a force to be valued and reckoned with. We started the year with women in power in Germany, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Poland, Namibia, Norway and the UK. So perhaps this will be the year that girls learn that they can grow up to do anything a man can do – whether than be a boardroom director or a film director, an astronaut or an architect, a car-mechanic or a coder.
The problem with girls and technology
Coding, in particular, has become a language that girls think they can’t speak. Girls Who Code is a non-profit organization in the USA which aims to close the gender gap in technology, by running free coding after-school clubs and summer schools, and offering exciting stories of success from inspiring women in tech. It notes that while about 74 per cent of girls are interested in Science Technology Engineering and Maths – or STEM – studies, by the time they are 13 or 14 and making decisions about what to study, only 34 per cent are choosing them. By the time young women are leaving school, only 4 per cent go on to study a STEM subject. This means that only 18 percent of computer science degrees are held by girls – in 1984 that figure was 37 per cent, which means that even though technology is now used by all young women, a quickly diminishing number of them are interested in working with it.
In the UK the statistics are just as worrying – only 17 percent of tech jobs are held by women. Given that the technology sector is going to grow and grow (a recent survey suggested the UK will need one million more tech workers by 2020), then girls of today are denying themselves the opportunity to work in a flourishing and opportunity-rich industry in the near future. Jobs in technology are well paid, plentiful and hugely creative. So just what has happened to turn girls off the idea of computing?
Why don’t girls want to code?
Part of it is in the subtle (or not so subtle) messaging which girls are surrounded by from birth. Gap was recently criticized for a 2016 campaign which dressed young boys in Einstein T-shirts and told them, ‘Your future starts here’, while the girls’ equivalent described a ‘Social butterfly’ who is the ‘talk of the playground.’ When boys are Buzz Lightyears and girls are Princess Elsas, it follows that their aspirations are guided away from technology from an early age.
But more than that, it’s a question of the perception of coding. It’s a mysterious computer language, concealed way at the back end of our computing experience, and associated with shy boys in IT rooms – not helped by the fact that all of the figureheads in technology have been male (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg…).
Meet the women determined to help little girls become big technology leaders
But there are women out there determined to open up the world of coding to girls. Linda Liukas is a Finnish programmer, children’s author and girls-in-tech ambassador who has made it her mission to re-imagine coding as a highly creative, painterly activity. She was an early adopter of computing, teaching herself to code and then building a fan website for Al Gore at the age of 13, and going on to take a course in computing at Stanford. It was there that she discovered Ruby, a ‘deeply human’ programming language. She began to anthropomorphise it, she told the Telegraph in 2015. ‘I used to imagine describing problems to a six-year-old girl called Ruby… I would draw pictures to explain.’
What followed was ‘Hello Ruby’, a series of children’s books which teach the business of coding through charming illustrations, imaginative stories and exercises. The book introduces the fundamentals of programming, computational thinking and problem solving – how to spot patterns, think algorithmically and debug. The storybook comes with a workbook where kids can apply what they’ve learned through narrative. There are also plenty of in-jokes for seasoned techies and coders. Ruby encounters programming language Python (‘I’m very organized, persistent and somewhat rigid. I like things that can be counted: odd, even, prime, cubed, rooted, backwards and forwards. But I don’t take myself too seriously’), and operating system Snow Leopard (‘I’m the most beautiful, polite and well-mannered Snow leopard I know. I often have fights with the robots. Which is kind of pointless, since we are similar in the end.’)
In her inspiring 2015 Ted Talk, ‘A delightful way to teach kids about computers’, Liukas points out that the discouraging notion that coding is abstract, confusing and foreign comes from us, the parents:
‘Little girls don’t know that they are not supposed to like computers. Little girls are amazing. They are really, really good at concentrating on things and being exact and they ask amazing questions like, “What?” and “Why?” and “How?” and “What if?”. And they don’t know that they are not supposed to like computers. It’s the parents who do. It’s us parents who feel like computer science is this esoteric, weird science discipline that only belongs to the mystery makers. That it’s almost as far removed from everyday life as, say, nuclear physics. We no longer have any idea how computers work or how to talk to them.
‘And we do teach our kids how the human body works, we teach them how the combustion engine functions and we even tell them that if you want to really be an astronaut you can become one. But when the kid comes to us and asks, “So, what is a bubble sort algorithm?” Or, “How does the computer know what happens when I press ‘play,’ how does it know which video to show?” Or, “Linda, is Internet a place?” We adults, we grow oddly silent. “It’s magic,” some of us say. “It’s too complicated,” the others say.’
The power of storytelling, role models and learning through play
By capturing girls’ imaginations at an early age, and re-defining coding as a creative, imaginative and powerful language, Liukas hopes to set them on a path that unleashes the full possibilities of a life in technology. What Liukas is doing with a book and education scheme to teach children computer programming, others are doing with engaging courses set up as fun, creative social events, positive role models and fun educational toys for girls.
Stemettes is a UK charity set up by two women, Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and Jacquelyn Guderley, in 2012. Imafidon was inspired to dedicate her life to getting girls into technology after finding herself as one of only three girls out of a class of 70 studying Maths and Computer Science at university. She decided the key was in the sociability of learning… and free snacks. Stemettes workshops for girls, which take place throughout the year all over the country, are free, fun and filled with food. Their success rate is phenomenal. More than 14,000 young women have attended Stemettes events across UK and Ireland since the charity’s launch. And more than 95 per cent leave with a greater interest in STEM subjects.
Techies is a website which tells the stories of women and underrepresented people of colour flourishing in technology. Girls can read about inspiring women who have become CEOs of huge start-ups by the age of 25, who have invented life-changing apps, and who bear no resemblance to the traditional stereotype of the backroom coder. While the project is very different to Liukas’s, its mission statement reinforces the view that storytelling is key to inspiring and inciting change: ‘The project has two main goals: to show the outside world a more comprehensive picture of people who work in tech, and to bring a bit of attention to folks in the industry whose stories have never been heard, considered or celebrated. We believe storytelling is a powerful tool for social impact and positive change.’
Of course, storytelling and learning through play are long-established ways to help educate children without them even realising they are being taught. Randi Zuckerberg – one time spokesperson of Facebook and sister of Mark – is now focused on addressing the gender gap in technology, and she agrees stories and play are the way to capture girls’ imaginations young. She has also written a book, and now TV series, called Dot, which focuses on a tech-savvy eight-year-old who balances the charms of nature with the excitement of technology (birds tweeting versus social media tweeting), and experiments with 3D printers, robots and drones. Zuckerberg is keen to promote a balanced appreciation of technology which does not replace life beyond it. Zuckerberg is a Primo Toys supporter has been vocal in her appreciation of Cubetto, the wooden robot that teaches young children to code without having them glued to a computer: ‘I want them to learn those necessary skills, but I don’t want them to spend hours and hours in front of a screen.’
The notion of an educational toy for girls that can teach the art of coding without opening an electronic device is one that will be appealing to many parents who worry about the amount of screen time their young children are exposed to. The lack of women in technology is a ‘pipeline problem’ – one that needs to be addressed at its source, ie early years education. If only small numbers of girls are being inspired by technology at an early age, then large numbers of them are never going to be leaving university qualified in tech-related subjects. Cubetto is designed to find young girls at the beginning of the pipeline – a STEM toy for toddlers that will have them engaged, problem-solving and creating in a way that lays the foundations for a life with the skills to understand and engage with the technology that is shaping the world.
What would a world look like with more women in technology?
The BBC recently asked leading women in technology how the industry would be different if the gender gap was closed. Their responses give an enticing glimpse at would could be, if we could successfully engage girls with technology:
‘There would be more of a gender mix in AI voices – dutiful personal assistants wouldn’t be largely female (Siri at launch, Cortana, Alexa), and advanced humanoid robots wouldn’t be mostly male (SoftBank’s robot companion NAO and, going more retro, R2D2 and Hal 9000),’ says Kriti Sharma, director of Bots and AI at Sage.
‘New laptops and phones aimed at women would focus on technical specifications and features rather than on being pink,’ posits Suw Charman-Anderson, founder of Ada Lovelace Day, which honours the world’s first computer programmer.
‘We would also see healthcare technology aimed at specifically female aspects of physiology. Gone would be the days of vast numbers of women having appalling, quality-of-life affecting health issues and being told, it’s “one of those things”! Kids would automatically ask their mums – rather than their dads – for help fixing, designing and building things,’ imagines Naomi Climer, outgoing president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
So whether it be through books, toys, role models or workshops with snacks, introducing young girls to coding could have rewards above and beyond the remunerative and creative opportunities offered by a career in technology. If it only eradicates one pink laptop design, it is surely worth it.