Today, November 12, 2016, we celebrate the third annual “Girls Learning Code” Day. The mission is to get girls of all ages interested in web coding. This is important because traditionally, young girls have been largely left out of mathematics and science fields. Not many years ago, girls were even told that they needn’t bother learning math and science, because girls don’t have to be proficient at such things. The times are changing, but the truth is that our STEM fields are still disproportionately male-dominated.
Why get girls (and boys!) interested in STEM fields? Because according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17%, while other occupations are growing at 9.8%. STEM degree holders have a higher income than non-STEM degree holders, even if they’re not working in their field. Because it’s job security – it is clear that most of the jobs of the future will require an understanding of math and science.
So, what is STEM? STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM education is helping to bridge not only gender gaps in related fields, but also the ethnic gap – minorities have traditionally been underrepresented in these disciplines, too. To illustrate why STEM education is important, I – a “girl who codes” – reached out to some of my fellow lady coders for their thoughts. All of us work in a STEM field, and most of us mentor youth in STEM in some capacity. I posed four questions, and we answered.
- Julie Ju-Yeon Kang – Software Engineer
- Emily Parker – Web Developer
- Jen Kniss – Engineer & Co-Founder of FORSTA
- Amy Hineline – Drupal Coder
AMY: My first degree was in math. I worked as an intern for about six months and discovered that I didn’t do well in a patriarchal environment. I was asked to fetch coffee and read proofs rather than work, and I was too young and timid to question it. I went back to school and became a nurse for 12 years. After being diagnosed with cancer, I could no longer work in my specialty (hospice), because I developed a hard time separating my professional life from my personal life. My husband suggested his line of work – web development – so I took a break from working and learned Drupal. I found out that coding is hard, but I have a support system to catch me.
JEN: I actually prefer STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. I owe my Art instruction a lot of recognition for my ability to see how the things I create need to fit together and interact. Understanding how the design of your creations affects the way people interpret your results is critical. No amount of hard work can make up for creating something no one will use because they can’t understand it or just don’t like it. From color choices to assembly, presentation, readability, execution and usability, there is no separation between the sciences and the arts for me.
Creation and autonomy are the things that attracted me to STEAM fields. I am in Computer Science now but I was not one of those kids that ‘started programming at the age of 5’ like stories you hear about prodigies. I actually hated my first experiences with computers and math but I loved my shop classes.
Beyond the obvious meaning, STEAM represents progress, knowledge, discovery, autonomy and creativity. STEAM fields are all difficult subjects that depend on each other. The skills they require have no knowledge of your gender, emotions, ethnicity, religious inclinations, etc. While the end result of practicing these skills – a phone app, a building, a sculpture, a medicine, an algorithm – may be used to serve a specific group, the skills and processes need objectivity, clarity, creativity, consistency, curiosity, and a breadth of knowledge.
That process transcends all of the labels we cling to. The stars we see at night don’t care about our opinions and preferences, origins or beliefs – they just ARE – and what we do with that is up to us. So, STEAM to me is a set of fields with which my engagement means I can step outside of the personal and feel more connected to the world and universe.
JULIE: What attracted me to STEM was my love for my science classes in school. I found comfort in learning how matter or life is organized, the rules that everything in the universe seems to follow, the rare exceptions to those rules that keep people guessing, the wonder of discovering things we didn’t know existed. The love of computers came when I was in high school – when I discovered that I could talk to my friends at night without waking up my parents with my phone voice, which is pretty loud and obnoxious.
EMILY: I was never very interested in math or science, growing up. My concerns, once I got to college, were practical ones – I watched which of my peers were being offered jobs when they graduated. Inevitably, they were in the technology sectors. I loved British Literature and Shakespeare, but I didn’t see any job openings which capitalized on those! I started in Broadcast Engineering for radio and television because of my love for music, and then went on to finish an additional Applied Science degree. The jury is still out on math, but I found that once I gave science a chance, I was fascinated by nearly all of it. While I never specifically focused on web development, I came to learn that it was something that I enjoyed and was good at – it is a discipline that blends artistic vision with mechanics, and I like that. It combines form and function. You may not believe a website can be “beautiful,” but I do!
AMY: I work with a youth group and I have shared my journey getting in to web programming with the girls – especially the girls who have had children while still in high school. This is because web programming doesn’t necessarily require a college degree, and the pay is pretty good. The freedom is even better. I have the choice to work from home. The ability to work remotely is invaluable for stay-at-home mothers.
JEN: For me it’s a threefold approach – directly, in a balanced fashion, and by example.
Most recently I spent several months as a mentor for a group of junior high and high school girls on an all-girl team for FIRST Robotics in Boise, Idaho. The team was championed by Boise State’s Amy Moll and led by Boise State’s Christine Chang. We had several mentors other than myself on the team, both male and female.
The girls had 6 weeks to design and build a robot that met a certain set of constraints that they would use to compete among other teams in the region. They made it all the way through pre-finals on their first year. Quite an accomplishment. Those weeks (and really months leading up the competition) included design sketches and discussions, using CAD software, shop tools, construction, prototyping, electronics, programming, and all the grit required for troubleshooting when things break. I think I learned as much from them as they did from us.
As important to me as direct engagement with young women in STEAM, is engagement with young men. I have been mentoring an 11 year-old boy in STEAM for over a year now. Sometimes we see each other as often as every week and other times once a month. We build robots, print t-shirts, burn our own circuit boards, fix things, take things apart, and write code. We imagine and draw and discuss what he is learning in school. He is remarkable.
He has never considered a girl less capable than a boy or that science is somehow a ‘boy’ thing. It does not seem to have ever occurred to him; which speaks to his generation and his parenting. But there is also the matter that it would be pretty hard for a boy to see a girl as anything ‘less than’ in engineering if the person who taught him how to write code and solder a circuit was a woman.
JULIE: I am a big fan of code.org‘s Hour of Code. If you haven’t tried it at your school yet, ask your teacher! I also mentor young women as they try to succeed in STEM while also navigating the rest of high school and college. That balance of school life and personal life is a struggle everyone goes through at all ages, and it always helps when you have a team/squad you can turn to for support and advice when you need it. It makes me happy to be able to be a teammate in that way.
AMY: I think it is important for everyone to have exposure to the sciences! It should start in elementary school, in GATE programs. Because technology and progress will be what saves the environment. Because these fields are in high demand and honestly – the science community needs the approach that women can offer. I also think it is empowering to have a career that pays enough to survive without a second income.
EMILY: Because everything around us – our whole lives – are driven by technology. By technology, I don’t even necessarily mean digital – technology can be anything created by a human that meets a human need. To conceive, design, build, and create, you need a foundation in those processes!
JEN: That one is pretty simple. The world has a lot of problems to solve (and a lot of science fun to have!) Those problems have no awareness or concern for gender. We don’t have time to NOT have more women in STEAM. We need smart people – and lots of them – solving problems. Gender stereotypes waste everyone’s time. So, if girls are thinking they don’t belong or boys are thinking they are better at “being geeks” than girls, we need to move fast and stop that ridiculousness right now. It is both an unscientific notion and unnecessary. So we make STEAM education and programs more available for girls, include the boys in the fun, and lead by example.
JULIE: Because sometime during middle school, something convinces a majority of girls that they can’t enjoy science or math and play sports, be cool, have fun, or do all the other things in life they want to do! The reasons why they fall out of love with STEM vary, but they’re all myths.
For the past 3-4 generations, women have been the tiny minority in STEM fields, and the women in these fields don’t get treated as well or listened to as much as the men. Therefore, our current state of science, engineering, and tech isn’t whole. We are missing entire realms of knowledge because not enough variety of minds and points of view are working on the same problems – and most problems impact people of all genders, cultures, etc.
Can you imagine spending years designing a new school, let’s say, and only boys were part of the planning process; they didn’t consult any girls. And after years of planning and construction, they build the school, and on opening day, they realize that the girls’ bathrooms only had urinals. No sit-down toilets, no stalls with doors, no little trashcans to put your period supplies in. WHOOPS! All that time and energy and money spent solving the wrong problems! Maybe they should have consulted some actual females! I know that example seems silly, but the technological equivalent happens ALL THE TIME.
AMY: Coding in particular is a field which does not necessarily require a college degree. If someone learns code while in high school, they can be career-ready soon after graduating. Young women can learn to code and then have a skill that they can utilize while being a mom, and have the ability to raise children without too much of a need for child care, if need be. I am a huge advocate of stay-at-home mothering, but in today’s world, it really takes two incomes to be able to live comfortably. Also, coding is so flexible! Theming, animating, functionality – the sky is the limit.
EMILY: Technology drives everything. If we don’t encourage all children to learn it when they’re young, we’re setting them up to be left behind professionally when they grow up. If we neglect girls in this endeavor, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, too. Without girls and women, we’re missing fully half of our collective intellect.
JULIE: Girls need to learn how to code, because pretty soon, coding will be a skill that everyone will need to know – just like reading, writing, and arithmetic. But even now, girls often have characteristics that make them really good at coding: are you a really fast typist? Are you good at catching spelling errors? Are you good at explaining things so that your friends or younger siblings can understand them? Has anyone ever accused you of being bossy or stubborn? Do you find yourself automatically coming up with shortcuts for things? Do you feel a rush when you finally figure something out that’s been getting you stuck for a while? Then you will LOVE to code.
JEN: To a young girl, I would say, try it! For some, it will feel amazing to type something on a screen, and something else on the screen – or across the room, or around the world – does something because you programmed it to. It is not easy – but why does it need to be? If you lose interest and never want to see a line of code again – cool, but try it.
Nothing is stopping you from making anything.
Nothing is stopping you from learning anything.
Not strong enough? Learn about using leverage.
Not fast enough? Build something that IS.
Don’t have the tools? Borrow, share, start collecting, make your own.
Some guy keeps taking the wrench away and getting pushy about it? Take it back. (Even some of my closest guy friends do this sometimes without even noticing!)
You do not even need to believe you can do it; you just have to start somewhere – anywhere.
And by the way? Confusion is a good sign. It means you are learning. Don’t mistake it for stupidity and DON’T run from it.
To get started, join 40,000 Girls Who Code at https://girlswhocode.com/.