Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg: all tech giants and household names, and all men. Here’s why it’s so vital for our daughters to get girls coding!
Ada Lovelace was a mathematician who, in 1840, wrote what is widely accepted to be the first computer program and is known as the “Mother of Computers.” A secret World War II project by the US Army resulted in the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)—the first computer—built to calculate bombing trajectories with greater accuracy.
Six female mathematicians— Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, Ruth Lichterman, Adele Goldstine, and Betty Snyder—created the first software programs, the first technical manuals, and gave the first programming classes. Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper of the US Navy developed the computer language COBOL, made the first compiler and coined the term “debugging.” Margaret Hamilton developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo space program in 1969. Love the Internet? Elizabeth J Feinler led the team that came up with the concept of the Domain Name System (.com, .gov, .edu, etc.).
The women of ENIAC said they had done the programming because at the time, men felt hardware design was the most important job, leaving the less important task of software design for the women. When men decided to claim programming for themselves, we see a proliferation of all-male professional associations, ads that portray women as more prone to error, and “personality tests” written specifically to privilege men over women.
This, coupled with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft becoming the face of computer science in the 80’s, created a paradigm shift. A computer programmer was no longer a woman, but a man.
Today, despite a projected twenty to twenty-five percent increase in IT jobs, women make up only seventeen percent of computer science majors. Roughly six out of every hundred apps are developed by a woman. About seven percent of all venture capital funding goes to female-led tech startups, while eighty-six percent of the companies that receive VC funding have zero women in management roles.
“Sometimes, when I meet programmer boys who don’t know me, if I tell them I can code, they assume I mean that I only know some basic programming skills. I remember a male friend of mine once forgot that I’m a girl because I’m ‘too good at programming’”.
—Demi Guo, age 17, Two time US Computing Olympiad winner (2014, 2015), and International Olympiad in Informatics Silver Medalist (2015)
Dr. Jean Yang, assistant professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, says “It’s hard to admit you like something when everybody expects you to dislike it and not have any natural talent for it.” In Singapore, I’ve still been told regularly that boys are better at math than girls. LEGOs and many toys that encourage building and design are placed in the “boys” section of toy stores and are marketed toward a male audience. While it was encouraging to hear that the majority of the women around the world that spoke to us for this article did not experience overt sexism in the workplace, many acknowledged that we have a room for a great deal of improvement in making Computer Science a more gender neutral field.
Roughly half of our respondents cited early exposure and access to computers/programming as very important to their development as coders. LOGO, a simple coding language in which you instruct turtles to draw pictures, was cited specifically by two of them. While LOGO is still used in some schools, today’s child is most often introduced to coding via opportunities like LEGO Robotics or the Scratch Jr app on tablets.
“Scratch Jr engages both boys and girls in expressing themselves through programming. They can do it by creating interactive games or stories, drawing their own characters, taking pictures, and making sounds,” said Marina Bers, one of the creators of the application. After a two-hour Scratch Jr workshop taken with her dad at Imagin8ors, my own daughter demanded we add it to her tablet and has continued to play around with it.
Other women didn’t pursue coding until college, or later. Laura Dailey had an MBA, but wanted to work for Keane Inc., a software services consulting firm, so she enrolled in COBOL courses with the goal of earning a place in their software development training program. Singaporean Ling Tan didn’t start coding until she was working on a Master’s Degree in Architecture. Today, she is a designer with Umbrellium with an interest in wearable tech.
Two of the three Singaporean Computer Science majors I spoke to had never taken a programming class before college. They expressed a hope that the MOE will continue to expand IT programmes at the primary and secondary level. Over the past few years, Singapore’s public schools have been creating opportunities to learn valuable tech skills. There are a few 1:1 schools where each child has a laptop. Some primary and secondary schools are teaching 3D design software.
Other secondary schools are teaching app development and various programming languages. Mr. Eugene Lim of the MOE told me “Computing has been available as an A-level exam since 1980. The O-level Computing subject will be rolled out in 2017, and the first examinations will be in 2018.” However, these are not universally offered, nor do they address the accessibility gap that exists between wealthy and poor students (wealthier children have earlier and wider access to technology along with parents who are more likely to be familiar with technology themselves).
The idea of handing a computer or tablet to a young child can create anxiety in parents, but it’s important to see the value in granting access to technology. “There is enough research to suggest that purposeful use of screen time can aid with the child’s learning. Examples are educational apps that engage the child to learn in a ‘minds-on’ manner (where they have to think and interact vs. mindlessly playing a game), help with a child’s focus, facilitate off-screen activities, and help with social/ collaborative learning,” says Balaji Ramanujam, CEO and co-founder of Imagin8ors.
My husband Ravi, an MIT graduate who currently works as a software developer, said “I am amazed by how much they figured out on their own. Rhiannon (age 4) figured out how to use voice recognition to search YouTube without anyone ever showing her how.” Laura Dailey noted that “technology is such a pervasive part of our children’s lives that my 14-year-old daughter teaches me new things on a daily basis.”
The most revolutionary way to teach your daughter that coding is for everyone would be to learn to code yourself. 21C Girls runs coding classes for moms. Some coding classes, like the one Elanor and Ravi attended together, are run as parent-child course where you can learn alongside your child. “Once you get past the first hurdle of overcoming the unknown, then it just gets easier,” said Ling Tan. There are plenty of programming classes for children of all ages and interests— look out for our top pick of programming classes coming tomorrow. Also check out our holiday gift guide for tech-friendly toys for your girls.
Brian Dean, Director of the US Computing Olympiad and Professor of Computer Science at Clemson University, suggests talking through the negative stereotypes about computer programing—that it’s for boys, that it’s boring, or that it’s irrelevant to solving important societal problems. Show your daughter the names and faces of the women who helped found IT as a field. Or show her what women coders look like in a modern context with the documentary CodeGirl, which chronicles the 2015 Technovation Challenge, in which all-girl teams from around the globe develop apps to solve problems in their communities and compete for a ten thousand USD prize to finish and release their app. Perhaps your daughter will be inspired to create a Singapore-based team for the 2016 competition?
Women were instrumental to the creation of Computer Science. Let’s help our daughters become an integral part of the future of the field.
Lead image via Imagin8ors; Image #1 sourced via Pinterest (Ada Lovelace and Margaret Hamilton); Image #2 (ENIAC) sourced via Pinterest; Image #3 (Demi Guo) sourced via USACO Facebook page; Image #4 (scratch jr) sourced via Pinterest; Image #5 sourced via The Straits Times; Image #6 sourced via WondersWork