Tag Archives: girls can code

Education Work

How to stop the gender gap in tech and coding

There’s a problem in our education systems, leading to a problem in our tech industry – the continued perception that coding is for boys…

When I was younger I wanted to be a games designer. But I didn’t know anything about engineering or coding and for some reason they seemed like impossible subjects, designed for people with completely different brains to mine. I started to think this career path wasn’t for me at all. I’d never heard of any female games designers or engineers and it felt unlikely that it would ever be possible for someone like me to build games.

Despite the introduction of the new UK computing curriculum and the rise in after-school coding clubs, such as CoderDojo and Code Club most girls’ perception of coding and engineering appears to have stayed the same.

This issue is serious and hasn’t been ignored. A multitude of campaigns have been launched, such as Google’s Made With Code program and the European Ada Awards, and more advice is being provided on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) focused careers to encourage more girls to code. However, the fact that only 14% of the STEM workforce in the UK is made up of women suggests that these measures aren’t having much of an impact.

Why, in the 21st Century, are interesting, fascinating subjects such as these not appealing to female students? Only a quarter of girls aged 8-12 say they know anything about engineering, and those that do say it’s ‘too difficult’ and ‘more for boys’* – evidence to suggest that there is social stigma attached.

As a society, we seem to be investing far more time and money trying to achieve gender equality for adults when we should be addressing the root of the problem and understanding why there’s a gender equality gap to begin with. Are imposed gender stereotypes from a young age the problem?

Although obvious adult gender biases are seen as outrageous in our society (see the very funny responses to the ‘Bic’ pens for women campaign), the gender biases children experience on a daily basis are considered to be harmless and acceptable.

Why is this? As adults we are sensitive to sexism yet the majority of us don’t see a problem in allowing young children to grow up believing that boys and girls are very different.

Do separate toys and games, and comments such as ‘boys will be boys and girls will be girls’ really make sense in a world where we’re striving to achieve gender equality?

To eradicate sexism and close the gender equality gap we need to do more than invest millions of pounds in ways to make life more fair and equal for adults. We need to try and eliminate centuries of cultural conditioning which has made the vast majority of adults and children alike believe that men and women are essentially a different species with completely different interests, rather than people with very similar needs.

See also: The Game That Saves Kittens and Teaches Coding

I believe we don’t recall being treated differently at a young age – let alone consider it damaging – because for the most part, boys and girls are treated differently without even realising it. An example of this sort of conditioning is often seen when parents and teachers unnoticingly encourage girls to internalise their low expectations – by saying things like ‘don’t do that, you’ll get your dress dirty’ and ‘nevermind, you’re better at other subjects’. Girls are brought up to play it safe, whilst boys are often told to ‘try harder’. This conditioning is also present in children’s toys, books, TV shows, games, and the advertising that surrounds us too. Sadly, it makes more sense financially to market cooking sets and princesses to girls, and superheroes and cars to boys.

All you need to do is type ‘Girls’ Toys’ and ‘Boys’ Toys’ into Google and look at the images in the results, to see how apparent and perhaps disturbing this is. You will immediately notice a sea of pink for the girls – cooking sets, dolls houses, makeup kits and barbies. Replace ‘Toys’ with ‘Games’ and the imbalance is even more obvious. Free online games for young girls include ‘Barbie’s Fashion Dream Store’, ‘Miraculous Hero Kiss’ and ‘My Pretty Pedicure’.

See also: The Answer To The Skills Crisis May be More Obvious Than You Think

What can we do to try and solve this problem? Toys that challenge and encourage children without pandering to gender biases is one way. Some great examples of this can be seen with games such as Technology Will Save Us and GoldieBlox.

My team and I have created ‘Erase All Kittens’ (E.A.K.) – a web-based, Mario-style platform game designed to inspire both girls and boys to learn practical coding skills, whilst leveraging their creativity and critical thinking skills at the same time.

In E.A.K., children from the age of eight can edit real code that governs the game’s environment, enabling them to build and fix levels as they play, using the languages HTML and CSS. Our aim is to eliminate the fear that many girls initially have of coding, and empower them with practical skills through a highly gamified and story driven approach. Parents can also spend time playing alongside their children, also providing them with an opportunity to learn.

Interestingly, it’s been found that girls’ grades in science and maths correlate directly with the level of anxiety that they have about those subjects. I believe that gender biases in our society are influencing girls to want to look and be perfect – and perhaps as a result they are not as courageous or willing to try and fail in the same way that boys are. This leads to fewer girls taking an interest in STEM subjects which require those characteristics, in turn leading to less women pursuing careers in these fields.

Gender-biased products are always going to exist – but at least now there are more options. If we truly want girls and boys to grow up to have equal opportunities, it’s essential that we place more importance on treating and encouraging them in a similar way from a young age.

See also: Schools Need To Use Code To Empower, Not To Pigeonhole

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Work

The Latin American girls in tech hacking into the ‘man’s world’

Staying up late into the night, Lilia Lobato Martinez watched endless YouTube videos to teach herself the computer code she used to help build her prize-winning Ool app for volunteers in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In her country, she is usually the only woman in tech competitions, which often hand out men’s T-shirts to the winners.

Now the 18-year-old electrical engineering student is using the $10,000 she won for her app in last year’s international girls-only Technovation competition to further develop Ool, which has so far linked over 1,000 volunteers with 20 non-profit groups in Mexico’s second-biggest city.

“A lot of people were constantly complaining everything’s wrong, but I found that no one was going out to the street to volunteer,” said Lobato. “So I decided to develop an app that’s a compendium of all the non-profit organisations, so we can learn what Mexico is building.”

With plans to eventually set up a centre to teach children to code, she said many of her female friends shied away from IT development because it was male-dominated. Only four out of 40 students on her degree course are women, she pointed out.

Across Latin America, the participation of girls and women in technology and science has lagged far behind men, experts say.

And while awareness of the need to correct the imbalance is growing, social and economic pressures mean many are still pushed into other areas or expected to start work straight after school rather than going into higher education.

“Boys think it’s easy for them and they expect to be smart in technology… it’s not expected for girls, and that’s reinforced by the education system quite often,” said Gloria Bonder, Buenos Aires-based UNESCO chair on women, science and technology in Latin America.

The portrayal of women in the media, and a lack of role models also contribute to making it a system-wide problem, added Bonder, who is working on a Central American pilot project to incorporate gender equality into science and technology education.

While 44 percent of all science research positions – including social sciences – in the region are held by women, they are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), according to UNESCO.

For example, in Peru and Colombia, around a third of natural science researchers are women, but they account for just a quarter of engineering and technology researchers.

Now a number of projects are striving to improve access for girls and give them the skills and confidence to compete in those jobs.

DEVELOPERS’ BOOTCAMP

One of these is the Laboratoria coding academy in Lima, which spots talent “where no one else is looking”, said its chief executive, Mariana Costa Checa. More than 1,000 women applied for 70 places at its intensive bootcamp where candidates from low-income backgrounds train as front-end web developers.

The application process involves a series of rigorous tests, alongside interviews with candidates’ families to reduce the drop-out rate for the course, which also runs in Santiago, Mexico City and the Peruvian city of Arequipa, and helps participants land jobs with companies such as IBM.

Along with computer programmes like JavaScript, it teaches workplace skills that are crucial for women who have little experience of formal-sector employment, said Costa.

She expects some Laboratoria graduates will go on to develop technical solutions for problems in their communities.

“The first thing we look for is a job, because it gives them economic stability, and for our average student, it triples their income,” said Costa.

It also gives them “a new perspective in life”, she added. “It starts changing the way they look at the world – and I think there’s enormous value in then bringing that change to their own communities.”

With many girls from poor families under pressure to start earning as soon as they finish school, Rebeca Vargas, president of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, said most of those who signed up for the international STEM mentoring programme she helped set up in Mexico’s Puebla state did so without telling their parents.

Nearly all are now studying STEM subjects at college or university.

“Some of the girls we worked with last year had to sell bread and food on the street to be able to earn money to eat,” said Vargas, whose foundation developed the programme with Mexico’s public education secretariat and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Families often expect girls to pay their way at home but not to seek senior positions at corporations or well-paid jobs. “They’re supposed to work but they’re not supposed to be educated,” Vargas said.

Wendy Arellano Martinez, who won a scholarship to study biotechnology engineering at the prestigious Monterrey Technology Institute after the mentoring programme, is now part of a team developing a project to make spectacle frames from recycled plastic bottles for older people on low incomes.

“We’re going to be looking for funds from organisations or foundations to help us distribute our products to people who need them but don’t have the resources,” said the 18-year-old student from Puebla. “I want to give the same support that I received.”

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