Technology surrounds us all, and the demand for software engineers is continuously growing, it is essential that we equip children with coding skills.
Whether in the school classroom, at home, or through extracurricular courses, so they can be the future leaders of innovation. Unfortunately, women are significantly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, making it is even more important to show girls, in particular, that learning how to code is not only extremely beneficial, but it can also be fun.
Coding as a literacy of the 21st century
The best coders have various skills and abilities, like problem-solving, logic, imagination, empathy (putting themselves in the user’s shoes), excellent communication skills, multitasking, aesthetic judgment and design skills. Stereotypically, many of those traits are female attributes. It’s also necessary for programmers to collaborate, brainstorm, and compromise. They regularly work with other people, contrary to the stereotype of a lone wolf sitting in a basement.
Some thinkers go even further and consider coding skills as a new form of literacy. Centuries ago, people who could read and write were in a position of power and controlled both the present and the future. Now, when our world relies on technology, people with tech-related skills have more options to be successful and shape their future instead of being passive consumers of technology.
Why STEM fields need more girls and women
STEM Fields desperately need more girls and women, and the statistics prove it! They are half of all tech users and make 85% of shopping decisions. At the same time, according to the research conducted by Accenture and Girls Who Code, the number of women in STEM has decreased since the 1990s, and if we do not reverse this trend, the number of female computer scientists will fall from 24% to 22% by 2025. In general, the numbers aren’t great: according to the desk research conducted by RightsTech Women, a Swiss NGO that aims to advance the human rights of women and girls in STEM, only 23% of STEM graduates in the United States are women. In Western Europe, it is even worse: in Switzerland, only 11% of STEM graduates are women, 16% in France, and 7% in Belgium.
For various reasons, teenage girls, even those who like math in school, become discouraged from pursuing education and careers in technology. There is no clear evidence of why it happens, but some theories suggest that a lack of female role models in STEM can be a significant factor. Imagine a 14-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy with similar skills and interests in technology. The boy can likely think of many men who followed their passion and became successful. The girl, on the other hand, is less likely to imagine a similar woman and more likely follow a suggestion that maybe she’s better in something else such as languages. In fact, in primary school, girls show higher aptitude in writing and languages, though there is no difference between the sexes in math and science. As a result, many teachers suggest that girls pursue an education in languages because of their perceived talent.
In theory, there is no reason why girls shouldn’t see their fathers, older brothers and other men as role models, but that’s generally not how it works. When girls — and also people of colour — don’t see others like themselves succeeding in a field, they’re more likely to choose other career paths in areas that seem to be a more obvious choice for women. That’s why female role models are crucial for girls, and those who are encouraged to pursue STEM subjects now will later be role models for the next generation. This process should start in as early in school as possible, but ideally in primary education. There is research to suggest that more women would graduate from university with STEM degrees if there were more female teachers of these subjects at their schools.
Early exposure and the role of school
The school is also crucial because early exposure to coding is critical to increased learning abilities. Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Grace Hopper, Marissa Mayer and many other famous programmers showed interest in technology and science when they were children. However, learning to code can be a much more significant challenge later in life. Children, on the other hand, tend to see it as a creative tool and have fun while learning new things and exploring new ideas. Programming can be intimidating at times, and a simple error can cause a lot of frustration. By learning from an early age, children develop a better grasp for the technology, which helps them find better solutions and manage failure. Instead of giving up when something doesn’t work, they learn to fail and start over again.
That is even more important for girls because they often tend to avoid challenges rather than fail and learn from the mistake. While boys are encouraged to be adventurous and courageous, girls are praised for being ‘nice’ or ‘perfect’. Having mandatory coding classes at school can be a way to change this situation, and some European countries (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and United Kingdom) have already included them in the curriculum.
More reasons to teach programming to girls
Coding is empowering and gives girls an equal shot. It increases their odds of having well-paid STEM jobs. Those jobs also have a potential to reduce the pay gap and boost the average woman’s pay significantly. According to research conducted by the American Association of University Women, male and female programmers were earning the same salary one year after graduation.
Programming careers also present great flexibility. Tech companies often support flexible work schedules and remote work, which can lead to better work/life balance. High salary means more options and independence.
Further, the absence of female programmers in the field is detrimental to innovation of all kinds. Because women globally make the majority of buying decisions and there are apps and products that only women use, female product designers are likely to bring relevant and needed perspectives that otherwise might be missing.
There is no doubt that our world relies on technology, or that the demand for programmers will only grow. Teaching the basics of programming to children, especially girls, should no longer be just an experiment or a cool idea. Parents and teachers should strive to equip them with the best tools possible so that they can fully benefit from the opportunities of today and to create the opportunities of tomorrow.
By Monika Ambrozowicz
Monika Ambrozowicz is a Communications & Marketing Manager at RightsTech Women, a Swiss NGO that aims to advance the human rights of women and girls in STEM. Among other projects, including research and advocacy, RightsTech Women is organising workshops about robotics and programming for girls. The next one will take place on 6 October in Geneva. More info: https://rightstech.org/2018/09/10/robotics-and-programming-for-girls/
-  https://rightstech.org/
-  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/07/opinion/stem-girls-math-practice.html
-  https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/03/09/is-the-teaching-profession-not-pink-enough
-  https://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/graduating-to-a-pay-gap-the-earnings-of-women-and-men-one-year-after-college-graduation.pdf?_ga=1.7578036.722397424.1379578621