Reshma Saujani, of Girls Who Code, doesn’t have the background you’d expect for the person leading an organization whose mission is to inspire, educate and equip young women with computing skills to pursue 21st-century opportunities.
She’s not a coder or computer science graduate, and she grew up terrified of math and science. Saujani is, however, a daughter of refugees, an attorney and a politician. It’s those aspects of her background that led her into classrooms filled with young boys clambering to be the next Steve Jobs. But what was blaringly obvious with each class she visited, was the absence of young women.
But why? Why aren’t girls expressing that same level of interest in computers? “It’s because the messages being embedded in our culture subconsciously allow young girls to believe the myth that they are not good enough for science,” Saujani told the audience during her Analytics Experience 2017 keynote. And she provided several examples:
- The first computer-as-a-toy was marketed to boys.
- Programmers are stereotyped as white males, working from a basement, wearing a hoodie and drinking Red Bull.
- Clothing for girls with quotes that say “I hate math, let’s shop instead,” or “I’m allergic to algebra.”
- Our culture tells girls to be pretty, to strive for perfection and to smile, while telling boys to be brave, take risks and climb to the top of the monkey bars and jump.
“The reality is that it’s impossible to change the way women view technology if we don’t change the way we as a society talk about women in technology,” said Saujani. “For the girl who imagines the stereotype of a programmer as a white male, computer science seems irrelevant to her life and her aspirations, and rightfully so.
“You cannot be what you cannot see,” said Saujani. And that alone was the motivation she needed to quit her job as an attorney and begin Girls Who Code.
Turning 20 girls into 40,000
Girls Who Code started with 20 handpicked young women, whom Saujani won over with free pizza, and in just five years the organization has grown to 40,000 young women who’ve learned computer programming.
And while 40,000 in five years is powerful, it’s not the stopping point. Girls Who Code is on its way to closing the gender gap in technology with 100,000 young women equipped with the skills needed in computer science.
The exposure Girls Who Code offers, helps shift the mindset of what’s possible for women in the workplace.
“When we teach girls to code, we will teach a generation to be change makers,” said Saujani. That change is a necessity for industries, such as finance, retail and transportation, that are desperately seeking technology-thinking employees.
“Equipping women with computer science knowledge could be the solution to our problem, but we have to help women believe from the earliest stages of life that it’s possible,” said Saujani. “That means encouraging young girls to be as curious as they are polite, and as messy as they are pretty. We have to help our girls see that coding is as simple as telling a computer what to do.”
For a woman whose mission in life was to give back to a country that had given so much to her refugee parents, Saujani can certainly check that goal off her list. But now, what she wants – and what she encouraged attendees at Analytics Experience to do – is to see others get involved with Girls Who Code.
With less than 1,500 computer science teachers in the United States, Girls Who Code is a chance for programmers to volunteer, teach or start a club of their own. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, you can teach girls to code by buying one of the Girls Who Code books. Purchase the book and give it to a young girl you know.
All book proceeds go directly back into the Girls Who Code organization.
“If we don’t teach our girls, there will be so many innovations that sit in silence,” said Saujani. “Don’t ever let someone tell you a problem cannot be solved, because this one actually can.”
See videos from Analytics Experience, including Saujani's full presentation, along with talks from basketball star Magic Johnson and former US CTO Megan Smith.