STEM

Reshma Saujani Makes the Case for Girls Who Code

The code that makes computers run consists of long strings of seemingly random numbers and letters that tell the computer how to react to certain requests and even let the computer perform tasks that seem almost human.

The geeky wizards who control this digital magic are mostly young men. But girls, led by lawyer-turned-tech-advocate Reshma Saujani, have begun to mine this source of power.

"They are interested and they are good at it," Saujani said during a keynote address to FETC 2016 last week in Orlando.

Through the organization Saujani founded in 2012, Girls Who Code, more than 10,000 young women have been learning to create computer software which runs everything from smartphones to the nation's power grid. The girls have discovered that there is no reason for them to avoid high-tech fields, which are normally chosen by boys.

In middle school, three-fourths of girls say they are interested in science and math. But in high school, less than one percent show interest in majoring in computer science. In the 1970s some 37 percent of computer science students were women. By 2013, the percentage had fallen to 18 percent. Somehow girls are being discouraged from entering one of the most lucrative career paths.

"We've been sending messages to our girls that 'You are not smart enough,'" Saujani said. "Why do we let our girls say they hate math?"

Helping more students have careers in science is becoming crucial for the country's economic progress.

"There is no pay gap in science and engineering," she said. "As women are increasingly becoming the breadwinners they need the pay." And since women account for 85 percent of the purchases in the United States, it seems only fair that they should earn a higher portion of the salaries.

"I don't want to live in a world that's run by men," Saujani said. "I don't think you do either."

The audience at FTEC 2016 appeared to see immediate value in the Girls Who Code program.

"I think it's very important for girls to learn to code. I know girls can do it," math teacher Courtney Francis of Beaufort County School District in South Carolina said.

Francis has organized a club for girls who use Google-based scratch coding. After hearing Saujani speak she said she planned to use Girls Who Code as a resource to encourage her female students to pursue science careers.

"They don't think it's cool," Francis said. "I just have to show them being smart is cool."

Many educators at FETC 2016 who heard Saujani's speech said they were surprised at the state of girls in the field of computer science.

"I had no idea there's a serious deficiency amongst the females in terms of coding," teacher David Kadoch from Toronto said.

"If they have that drive and the will to do it, then maybe something along the way is not happening for them or they're getting turned off," Kadoch said. "Then why not give them a chance?"

Kadoch said educators should encourage girls to learn to write computer code.

"We tend to think it's the boys that are more technology prone, but I think we've got to give the girls more of a chance," Kadoch said. "Let them experiment and see what they can achieve."

The U.S. economy needs computer science graduates, as well as workers in other technical fields.

"It's a good time to be looking for a job if you have the right skills," Saujani said. "Employers are desperate to hire workers who have these skills."

Typically, the Girls Who Code program takes groups of 20 girls and teaches them how to write computer code during an intensive seven-week program. Of the 10,000 girls who have attended Girls Who Code workshops since 2012, some 90 percent say they will choose computer science as a career.

This summer 1,600 girls will go through the program. Some will come from Indian reservations and others will come from Section 8 housing projects and homeless shelters. If they continue studying computer science and earn a degree, some 50 U.S. companies have pledged to hire them.

"I think we can close the gender gap in our lifetime," Saujani said.

About the Author

Patrick Peterson worked for Florida Today, a Gannett daily newspaper in Brevard County, Fla., from 2005 through 2013, and earlier was embedded with U.S. Marines as a reporter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In Biloxi, Miss., he was a reporter for The Sun Herald newspaper and also founded and ran a charter boat company. He is a journalism graduate of Louisiana State University.

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