October 18, 2017

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Reshma Saujani On Closing the Gender Gap in Tech

Photo by Adrian Kinloch

Reshma Saujani’s Girls Who Code: Learn To Code and Change the World (Viking, Aug. 2017) hits the sweet spot of how-to coding books. Neither too granular nor too simplistic, the work is an empowering text for tween and teen girls regardless of their skill levels. SLJ chatted with Saujani about the movement behind the book. She will also be a keynote speaker during SLJ’s sixth annual SLJTeen Live! virtual conference on August 9.

Can you tell us a little bit about the organization Girls Who Code?

Girls Who Code is a nonprofit working to close the gender gap in technology. We started five years ago with 20 girls in New York City. Today, we’ve reached more than 40,000 girls in all 50 states.

We’ve done this through two programs. Our Summer Immersion Program is a free seven-week introduction to computer science that [involves] technology companies. We pair instruction in robotics, web development, and mobile development with mentorship and exposure to the industry’s top female engineers and entrepreneurs. This year, we’re running 80 programs in 12 U.S. cities.

We also run an after-school Clubs Program, which brings our programming to girls nationwide and can be hosted in schools and libraries. They are led by facilitators, who can be teachers, computer scientists, librarians, parents, or volunteers from any background or field. Last year, we launched 1,500 clubs in all 50 states, making us one of the fastest growing after-school clubs in America. Our clubs represent our country—we have clubs in a homeless shelter in Boston, on a Chippewa reservation in Minnesota, in a migrant center in California, and in the top private schools in New York City.

Your background is in law and politics. What inspired you to make the jump to coding? And why for young people?

My obsession with teaching girls to code comes from my experience in politics and my passion for creating economic opportunity. In 2010, I was in New York City and running for Congress. During the campaign, I would visit schools and see armies of boys learning to code, training to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. But in these rooms, girls were missing. And I thought to myself, where are all the girls?

After hearing from parents across the country that they wanted their daughters to learn to code, I went on Amazon to see what books were available and didn’t see anything for girls and coding! So [Girls Who Code] decided to write a book. One book turned into a 13-book series with Penguin that includes our nonfiction title, a fiction series, a journal, an activity book, and board books for toddlers. We’re making a series of books because there’s a need for them.

Closing the gender gap in tech seems like a no-brainer. What are the misconceptions people have about coding and/or women and coding?

It is a no-brainer. Computing skills are the most sought-after in the U.S. job market, with demand growing three times the national average. Today alone there are 500,000 open jobs in computing—but women make up less than a quarter of the computing workforce. With women making up more than 50 percent of college graduates and over 40 percent of our family’s breadwinners, we need to do something about bringing women into the tech workforce.

The reason why there’s a gender gap in tech is twofold. First, our education system isn’t doing enough to fix this problem. Only one in four schools teaches computer programming, and studies show that if you don’t take computer science in middle or high school, you won’t take it in college. Plus, while girls’ interest in computing declines over time, the greatest drop-off happens in middle school.

Second, you cannot be what you cannot see. In the 1980s, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women. Steve Jobs’s original Macintosh team had more women than most tech companies today. When personal computers came out, though, they were marketed as a game for boys. That narrative got picked up in movies like Revenge of the Nerds and continues today in TV shows like Silicon Valley. The [cultural] image of a programmer is [one] of a boy in a hoodie in a basement alone, and girls can’t relate to that image.

In the book there are cartoon illustrations of five girls that wonderfully reflect the humor, fun, and even frustration of coding. Did you have any input on the artwork?

One of the best ways to spark girls interest is to share stories of girls who look like them. So, we created these five characters—Lucy, Maya, Sophie, Erin, and Leila—that represent the diversity and range of backgrounds and interests of our girls who code across the United States. Again, you can’t be what you can’t see. Andrea Tsurimi, the illustrator, was integral in bringing these characters to life.

What are you working on next?

I gave a TED talk last year about why we should teach girls to be brave instead of perfect and why I think it’s crucial to teach the next generation of women to take risks and become comfortable with making mistakes. The talk went viral and got millions of views. Afterwards, people started telling me I should write a book about it. I spent several months researching and try to convince myself that there wasn’t a book idea there. The more I researched, the more I realized there was a book idea. I’m working on the first draft now and it’s due out in fall 2018.

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Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

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Empower Your Community with Coding
Launch a coding program in your library that will promote digital literacy and impact your community. You’ll learn how to run computer programming courses that will introduce your patrons to new career paths and technologies. We’ll explore all facets of building coding programming for your library such as making your case for funding, hosting Code Clubs and Hackathons, and curating free resources and technologies available online.

Comments

  1. Martha M Bayle says:

    Hi Reshma,

    I understand your frustration, but please know that at my small middle school in Washington State, girls outnumber boys in the coding department. Girls have already committed to a career in technology, girls race to my 3D printer, girls get excited about all things tech!

    I demand equity and share those strong feelings with my co-teachers and administrators.

    Thank You,
    Martha Bayle
    NBCT Teacher-Librarian

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