Girls can too code

As I take ‘pen to paper’, an announcement that Karen Sheriff has been named President and CEO of Q9 Networks, a major Canadian provider of data centre outsource services, crosses my inbox. Former president and CEO of Bell Aliant, Sheriff was applauded for leadership of Bell Aliant’s “game-changing broadband fibre network build and the development of data centres across Atlantic Canada.” Sheriff is not alone — the IT landscape is peppered with examples of female leadership in Canada and beyond. Janet Kennedy heads up Microsoft Canada and Cisco recently appointed Bernadette Wightman, former GM of the company’s Russian subsidiary, to head up its Canadian operation: on a global basis, CEO Ginni Rometty holds top job at IBM, CEO Meg Whitman leads HP, CEO Ursula Burns runs Xerox and Marissa Mayer acts as Yahoo! CEO, while COO Sheryl Sandberg manages operations for Facebook, Safra Catz was named co-CEO of Oracle in 2014, and Cher Wang is co-founder and chairperson of HTC Corporation.

These examples of stellar achievement speak to women’s ability to successfully negotiate management careers in the fast moving world of high tech. However, they belie the low profile reality for women across the IT industry as a whole. Consider the following:

Women’s participation in the ICT workforce peaked at 38% in the mid-1980s and has been falling ever since. In 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Catalyst concluded that women comprise 27% of the computing workforce, while the US National Science Foundation’s most recent SESTAT data puts the percentage of women working as computer/information scientists in the US at approximately 23 percent in 2010. In 2013, a National Public Radio report stated that about 20% of all US computer programmers were female. In other jurisdictions, participation rates are similar: for example, a UK e-skills research note from 2011 noted that while women account for 46 percent of the UK labour force, they made up just 17 percent of IT and telecoms professionals. And a recent online survey of with 1007 Canadians, conducted on September 8, 2014 by Angus Reid on behalf of MasterCard, found that only 18 percent of Canadians who considered a career in technology were women.

Related education statistics show a similar decline for women on the path to employment in ICT. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the US Department of Education, 37.1% of computer science degrees were awarded to women in 1984; this share dropped to 29.9% in 1989-1990, and to 26.7% in 1997-1998. The Computing Research Association’s Taulbee Survey, which looks at the proportion of women receiving undergrad and graduates degrees or that are faculty in computer science and engineering programs, concluded that less than 12% of computer science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women at US and Canadian institutions in 2010-11.  Statistics Canada has also found that women’s enrollment in computing disciplines at the post-secondary level is significantly lower for women than that for men and falling: while women accounted for 37% of enrollment in 2005-2006, by 2009, that figure had dropped to 27 percent. At the same time that women’s enrollment has declined, another Statscan summary has shown that male enrollment has increased dramatically, with the result that there were roughly twice as many male graduates as female in 1992, and three times as many in 2007.

Decreases in women’s participation in the ICT workforce is no reflection of sober opportunity assessment. In fact, a quick review of employment studies would suggest that the opposite is the case: as compared to earnings for 22 different industry categories tracked by Statscan for 2014, “Professional, scientific and technical services” earnings rank third, trailing only mining and utilities; in the US, the Bureau of Labour Statistics has calculated an annual mean wage of $81,860 for all computer occupations in 2013, which compares favourably with the mean wage of $46,440 for “all occupations.”

Relatively high ICT wages are in some part a function of educational investment and the high levels of skill required by many jobs in the industry. But they are also a function of skills shortages. According to president of the Information Technology Association of Canada, Karna Gupta “The skills shortage in the ICT sector is a reality today [2013].” The industry’s unemployment rate is less than 3 percent, which is statistically viewed as full employment, he explained, and by 2016, over 100,000 ICT jobs will need to be filled in Canada. A recent global study carried out by Cisco estimated that opportunity associated with the Internet of Things will push demand even further: Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, GM of Cisco Services, explained at the IoT World Forum 2014 that to build out the digital infrastructure needed to support IoT, we will need to source 2.2 million reskilled networking specialists and to retrain 4,000 specialists to ensure industrial networks can talk to the Internet, to quadruple the number of data scientists to between 300,000 and 400,000, and to increase the number of cyber security experts by a million. In other words, IT-related “jobs of the future” that are highly skilled and highly paid are expected only to increase.

If the relative financial advantage of a career in ICT is apparent, however, so too is a differentiated experience for the two genders within this industry: BLS data also shows either the absence of women, or a salary gap between male and female workers across 12 different categories of computer occupations. Other factors that have been cited to account for declining participation of women in ICT include a male dominated culture in the industry that is not welcoming to women, reluctance on the part of employers to make allowances for family needs and women’s presumed more social nature, which baulks at the prospect of long, solitary hours at the keyboard writing computer code — the “geek factor,” identified in a 2005 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology which looked at high school girls’ image of computer scientists. In young people, a report from the AAUW Educational Foundation, found “the Tool/Toy Divide” in which girls value the computer as a tool that is useful for what it can do — promote human interaction — and boys place value on the computer as a toy that is inherently interesting, an extension of “self” with interesting inner workings.

What is to be done?

What can be done to create greater access for women to the high paying jobs of the future that ICT offers, and what can be done to provide the industry with a much needed, expanded pool of qualified workers, which is now restricted by the non-participation of women (and indeed other marginalized groups)?

One approach is to get them while they’re young — before geek stereotypes and anxieties around capabilities have a chance to take hold. This month an inspiring example of this tactic was mounted by MasterCard, which invited Ladies Learning Code (LLC), a Canada-wide non-profit aimed at delivering “beginner-friendly technical skills in a social, collaborative way” to help. While the LLC holds regular technical training sessions for women, girls and kids, with sponsorship from MasterCard and the University of Waterloo, the group was able to hold simultaneous introductory coding classes for girls aged 8 — 17 in 15 cities across Canada (in addition to hosting on online pre-recorded workshop for girls who were unable to attend in person) in a National Girls Learning Code Day on November 8th.

National Girls Learn to Code Day, Toronto
National Girls Learning Code Day, Toronto

Altogether 700 participants registered for training, with 50 girls, in some cases accompanied by mothers, turning out for the Toronto session. Led by Youth Program Lead, Kathryn Barrett, the Toronto course featured a four-to-one ratio of students to mentor volunteers who introduced themselves with “fun facts” that were far from geek isolation: mentors MOs included “I just started a robotics club at work,” “I’m a web builder,” and “I love dark chocolate.” In addition to strong mentor support — triggered by pink and orange sticky notes on the PC indicating “done” or “in trouble” — the day-long program also encouraged collaboration in the development of ideas for the day’s project, creation of a business webpage, coded from scratch. Social interaction was also built into discussions on what makes a website good, what makes a website bad, and in Q&A throughout the day on coding terminology and programming routines. Girls were given ample time to consider and digest HTML and CSS languages, working through guided steps and with Mozilla Webmaker’s ‘Thimble’, an online webmaking tool that comes preloaded with titles, head, and body markers on specific numbered lines. A lunchtime game aimed at reinforcing programming steps had the girls collect in groups to reassemble and correctly order scattered code components. But beyond pedagogic techniques designed to appeal to girls’ interests, the session aimed — and succeeded — in creating an atmosphere of fun and acceptance. When several hands shot up in response to Barrett’s question “Who’s scared by this?” she responded: “it’s okay if you’re terrified; you are already ten steps ahead of most people because you are here.” “No questions are wrong questions,” she added, even though, as we all know in programming, “the tags have to be perfect.”

Shivonji, Nadia, Corrie, Lizzie at National Girls Learning to Code Day, Toronto
Shivonji, Nadia, Corrie, Lizzie at National Girls Learning Code Day, Toronto

In many ways, the girls attending the Toronto session are self-selecting enthusiasts. I spoke to several who all “knew what coding was” before they arrived, but were looking for ‘how to’: 10 year old Jessica “came because I wanted to learn code”; 13 year old Lizzy “came today because I wanted to learn how to make websites. I have done some coding in the past on websites, but I wanted to get some experience and some advice from people”; 12 year old Corrie came because “I wanted to learn how to make websites”; 10 year old Symanthi came “because I like computer programming and I wanted to learn code”; Nadia, age 12, “came here to learn how to make websites and be able to use code”; and Shivonji, also age 12, “came because I want to be an engineer as engineering kind of runs in the family. So I wanted to learn more about it [coding]. I tried making a website before, but it didn’t really work out.” To a person, the girls found the session “pretty easy” as it was targeted at their age range, and included a lot of visual examples, though the hardest part, Nadia noted “was remembering all the dashes, spaces and tags because if you forget anything ‘all the cats in the country would cry’.” Several felt the training would help in future business opportunities — “I’m interested in entrepreneurship, and it’s helpful to know how to make your own website,” Jessica explained, though Lizzy wanted to learn coding “just for fun.”

Going forward, Ladies Learning Code would like to offer additional free training, and to enable this, has entered Girls Learning Code in the CST Inspired Minds Competition. So far, GLC has progressed through to the final round, which will ultimately be determined through social voting. Jennifer Gagnon, manager, sponsorships & partnerships, has asked for your vote as “our hope that by removing all barriers to technical education, all girls – regardless of location or background – will be exposed to one of our workshops. Ultimately our vision is that with this exposure, more girls will be empowered to enter technical fields both educationally and professionally.”

For a view into the girls’ website product, see video below.

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