Girls & women are underrepresented in technology – in part because we don’t recognize & encourage their coding potential. Here are some signs to watch for.

A few months ago, I asked our kid’s fourteen year-old babysitter about her favourite subjects in school. “French, Spanish… and math.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “So… any interest in coding?”

A blank, silent stare. “Uh… like, computer stuff?” she asks.

“Yeah. You know, like, making apps and websites. Stuff like that.”

A slow shake of the head.

“Well, if you enjoy languages and math, you might find coding really fun. It’s kind of a combination of both.”

I’ll spare you the rest of the rather awkward conversation that unfolded, but here’s a bit of context: This girl attends a great school – one where the computer science teacher is famous for having turned down a job at Google to continue teaching high school kids. She’s a very good student, bright and diligent. Her stepdad is a gadget hound who dabbles in electronic music and graphic design. She lives in a city with a significant high tech presence.

She isn’t surrounded by coders, though, so she has no idea what they do – and merely the vaguest awareness that they exist. But she has plenty of opportunities available to her, should she want them. Coding – and IT work in general – is one of the fastest-growing job market segments out there, and it pays very well. But it has a serious pipeline problem: girls and young women aren’t finding their way to computer science programs (at least in the West – it’s a different story in India, China and other parts of the East), and one of the reasons for that is that the adults around them have cognitive biases that make us less likely to recognize coder potential in girls than in boys.

Making stuff: it’s what technology is supposed to enable, yet far too often, we think of technology aptitude in terms of passion for creating technology, rather than passion for creating with technology. That’s what’s happened in our home, where the de facto division of sibling identities has led to defining our son as the techie, and our daughter as the artist. That’s fine when you’re in elementary school, but project those identities out twenty years, and he’s likely to out-earn her several times over.
–Alexandra Samuel, “The 4 Words That Can Ignite Your Daughter’s Future Tech Career

Putting the Pieces Together

The story of how I learned to code is pretty typical: I stumbled into it. I had a (male) roommate-slash-best-friend in university who knew how to do it and offered to teach me how. A few months later, I was earning a bit of extra cash as his code monkey. Then he started a company and I was his first hire.

I was in my mid-twenties, and until I learned to code I hadn’t had a clue what my path ought to be. When I look back on my earlier years, though, with an eye to spotting the clues that I would find my way to coding, here’s what I see:

  • I loved math – so much so that one of my elementary school teachers used to reward me for completing my classwork early by allowing me to do extra math problems. (Yes, this was motivating for me.) And I have fond memories of a math-themed day camp I went to one summer.
  • Languages came easily to me and I delighted in understanding the rules of grammar and syntax, the idiosyncrasies of different languages, and expanding my vocabulary.
  • I loved design – not art, per se, but graphic design. My bedroom walls in high school were papered in torn-out pages from photography and avant-garde fashion magazines. I loved typography, collage, old-school cut-and-paste zine stuff.
  • While I was a gregarious child and enjoyed time with friends, I was thoroughly content to work long hours alone.
  • I read voraciously. I never tired of expanding my thinking.
  • I was passionate about learning new stuff – and sharing it with others.
  • I loved correcting annoyingly small errors (much to the chagrin of those around me, I’m sure – I was one of those kids who, when my mother said that so-and-so had called “ten minutes ago,” would pipe up with, “No, Mom, it was sixteen minutes ago.”). In fact, I enjoyed this so much that for a long time, I thought I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, not because I wanted to teach but because it would give me the pleasure of grading tests.
  • I was fascinated by human psychology – reading Carl Jung for pleasure and working my way through endless personality typing systems to better understand myself and others.

Now, I know plenty of coders who would give you an entirely different list of traits and aptitudes, but the big aha for me about all of this is that not once, until I was in my mid-twenties, did anyone look at me and say, “Hey, you should learn to code.” 

And yet, when I look down this list, I see a series of clear connections to my coding career, and why I enjoy working in tech.

So what can parents, teachers, and babysitter-hiring-busybodies look for as we work to encourage more girls to explore coding? I’d suggest we start by keeping our eyes open for girls who:

  1. Enjoy using logic to solve problems. (Possible subject-area strengths: math, physics, chemistry, philosophy – or simply an affinity for language puzzles.)
  2. Acquire new languages easily.
  3. Like making (and beautifying) stuff – crafts, toys, robots, zines, whatever.
  4. Find pleasure in delving deeply into projects. Note: this isn’t the same as introversion. There are plenty of extroverts in tech, and collaboration skills are extremely valuable.
  5. Have an affinity for independent learning.
  6. Enjoy sharing what they know with others. Not essential, but many of the most successful techies I know are inclined this way.
  7. Have an eye for detail.
  8. Show an interest in understanding human behaviour. This is a hugely important aspect of user interface design, app design strategy, and really all things tech.

(Notice anything missing from the list? I’d love to hear your suggestions. Also, see below for an alternate version of this checklist framed from a girl’s standpoint.)

I don’t intend this as a yes/no checklist – more of an “if you answered ‘yes’ to three or more of these questions, you might enjoy learning to code” kind of thing. But I hope you noticed that nowhere on this list is feeling an inextricable bond with a laptop, or identifying as a geek. The clues we look for in boys don’t necessarily apply to girls (or, frankly, to many boys either), and they needn’t define our notions of what a future coder looks like.

Where to Point Your Girl Coder

Now, once you’ve spotted a potential girl-geek in the making (though you may want to avoid labelling her a “geek” to her face), how can you introduce her to coding? I’ve got a few ideas for that, too:

  1. Show her role models. If at all possible, introduce her to women you know who have careers in technology. Role models and “possibility models” are hugely important in showing girls that they have options. If you don’t know anyone personally, show her this Elle magazine slideshow of influential women in tech, which includes some serious powerhouses (and importantly, several women who don’t code, but nonetheless lead major tech companies and nonprofits).
  2. Help her to see that there’s a huge variety in the kinds of roles available in tech. I’m using “coder” as a shorthand here, because we do need more women in engineering roles, but you don’t need to be a coder to work in tech.
  3. Give her opportunities to learn – and play – independently. For example, buy her a game that teaches foundational computing concepts (while still being fun):
    • Board game: Code Monkey Island
    • Computer game: SpaceChem (available for Windows, Mac or Linux) (see the guide for educators)
    • Mobile game: Lightboto
    • Then, once she’s established the basics, she may be interested in trying out the iPad app Hopscotch, Codecademy (not strictly for kids, but definitely accessible to them so long as they’re old enough to read and type), and/or (which has all kinds of projects, not just coding, so is great for kids who enjoy making stuff). If she’s interested in learning to build websites, Dash is a good option.
  4. Bring her to events like maker fairs, workshops and hack spaces. For starters, you can have a look for local groups hosting workshops and camps for girls learning to code, or maker events that are open to kids and teens.
  5. Encourage a growth mindset. Coding is not an intrinsic ability, but a skill that can be developed.

Most importantly: cultivate your awareness of your own biases, and work at overcoming them. We have a tendency to encourage girls more towards disciplines like health and liberal arts, as well as into “helper roles” within other disciplines. But if we want our girls to expand their horizons, we need to expand ours, too.

P.S. If you’re a high school Computer Science teacher, NCWIT has a great resource on recruiting young women into your classes. (They also have stuff that could be helpful for guidance counsellors, parents or other teachers.)

P.P.S. As I was working on this post, a friend shared a link to this horrorshow of a Barbie book. Lest we forget what we’re up against.

In Their Own Words: A Checklist for Kids

Added 14 January 2015

Many thanks to Sarah Worthy for reframing my “8 things” list as though it were written from a girl’s perspective – I recommend running this past the girls in your life and seeing how they respond.

  1. Enjoy 2 step math problems, asking “why?” questions about the world and people around us, love to sort and put puzzles together.
  2. Can count to ten in more than one language and like to sing along to music from other countries
  3. Like making (and beautifying) stuff – crafts, toys, jewelry, baking/cooking, sketches, traps for your little siblings to get caught in
  4. You secretly enjoy doing your homework and class projects, even though you tell your friends “homework is so lame!” (We won’t tell them, promise!)
  5. Enjoy working on projects by yourself and also with other people. Can swing all day or go play tag with equal gusto.
  6. You can’t wait until Mom finally let you get on Facebook (or Pinterest, etc.) (Or you secretly already figured out how to bypass your parents’ guards to get on the social media platform and they have no clue.)
  7. You are the one who usually points out when your friends or family make a spelling mistake or other error.
  8. You’re constantly amazed by just how oblivious grown-ups seem to be, and you can always pull one over on your older/younger siblings.

Photo: Math problems for girls, by WoodleyWonderWorks (Flickr). Thanks to my friend Luke Closs for the app and game suggestions.