Thursday, September 23, 2021

Who run the world? She who codes it.


The phrase “Girls Who Code,” which describes both an organization and the idea that men are more prominent in the upper echelons of the information technology world than women, despite there being no observable difference in ability, is a little like the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

“The argument continues to be made that gender differences in the ‘hard’ sciences are all about ability,” Lara Perez-Felkner, assistant professor of higher education and sociology in the College of Education at Florida State University, wrote in April. “But when we hold mathematics ability test scores constant, effectively taking it out of the equation, we see boys still rate their ability higher, and girls rate their ability lower.”

So it’s a confidence difference, not an ability difference. Girls are just as good at math, science, and even computer science as boys; they just think they lack ability in computer science, and boys are more likely to think they don’t.

With Black Lives Matter, the phrase doesn’t mean that white lives don’t matter, just as Girls Who Code doesn’t mean that boys can’t code. It’s just that the message of equality regardless of skin color or gender, whether its audience is a police department or a multinational corporation that needs a huge programming staff, hasn’t sunk in.

By way of full disclosure, Voxitatis has one computer programmer on staff, and she’s a woman. Our news organization isn’t Google, and there’s no doubt in my mind that our small organization won’t be the last stop in her I/T career.

But I’m afraid—and it absolutely kills me to say this—her potential for advancement as a computer programmer will be limited at many companies just because she’s a woman. The code she writes is better than the code I write or even the code I wrote when I worked at Wolfram Research in Champaign, Illinois. But because she’s a woman, some companies—not all, and I hope she finds many of those, but some—will hold her back from the top ranks.

Writing in the Conant Crier, the student newspaper at James B Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, Annika Lafyatis describes her summer immersion camp with the Girls Who Code organization. With the permission of both Annika and the paper’s faculty adviser, we are pleased to reprint her article here. As she notes, becoming a computer scientist involves a lot more than knowing how to write a good constructor for a C++ class.

Great news for students interested in computer science: It’s one of the hottest industries out there. Computer science majors are highly paid and highly in demand.

Bad news for women interested in computer science: Far too often, Silicon Valley still subscribes to old-fashioned views about what a coder looks like.

Girls that spent a week programming robots last summer (student newspaper)

From Uber’s sexist board members to a Google employee claiming that “biological” differences between the sexes justify why women aren’t more represented in the field, it’s no wonder that only 18 percent of computer science majors are female.

Fortunately, many companies and organizations are addressing the gender gap in computer science, Girls Who Code being one of the most famous. This summer, I was lucky enough to be part of a Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program.

The Summer Immersion Program is a seven-week course that introduces a variety of topics in computer science to rising high school junior and senior girls. Class is five days a week for seven hours, taught by Girls Who Code staff. Each program is hosted by a tech company, which provides the classroom, computers, and other resources. Many well-known companies, including IBM and Google, host summer programs in several major cities.

I applied after taking my first-ever computer science class junior year. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the application had nothing to do with grades or test scores. It didn’t even have to do with my knowledge of coding—girls with no experience were encouraged to apply. All I had to do was write a short response to one prompt.

I was accepted to a class at Synchrony Financial in Chicago. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I soon found out that Girls Who Code provided a unique computer science experience.

Most obviously, the program had a classroom of 20 girls. As our teacher pointed out, this would be the only time we were ever in a STEM class without any boys. The program emphasized sisterhood and teamwork. We all ate lunch together, and a lot of our activities were done with partners or small groups. Our classroom became a very tight-knit group, and I know that my classmates are a network of people I’ll be able to get advice or support from for years to come.

The class was also fast-paced. Unlike a traditional computer science class where you might spend a whole year using the same programming language, we dove into a new topic every few days, so even those of us who had some experience programming were still exposed to new things.

Over the course of seven weeks, we programmed with Scratch, HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, Django, and C++ (for robotics). Despite the fast pace, the work wasn’t too stressful, because we were not graded on our work. This allowed for a noncompetitive atmosphere, where the sole motivation was simply to learn and improve. Girls were also comfortable asking for help, as we were frequently encouraged to “be brave, not perfect.”

To my surprise, the program taught me far more than strictly how to code. We spent a lot of time researching, giving presentations, listening to guest speakers, and going on field trips to other companies. These experiences gave me a valuable glimpse into the life of a computer scientist.

Finally, for the last week and a half of the program, we worked in groups of four to create coding projects of our choice. It was challenging in every aspect, from deciding on a viable idea to attempting to use unfamiliar languages. Our final product wasn’t perfect, but the experience of working with a team to create a real product was immensely satisfying.

Girls Who Code taught me a lot about the ins and outs of being a female computer scientist, and I would encourage any sophomore and junior girls who are curious about coding to apply for the program. However, even if you aren’t able to participate in Girls Who Code, don’t be afraid to get involved in other ways. Conant has a robust curriculum of computer science courses and STEM-related clubs (such as WYSE, technology club, and robotics club), and the internet has a vast number of resources for beginning coders.

So what I’m saying is this: Girls, it’s not too late to learn computer science. You’ll probably be good at it, and you might really like it.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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