Shaherose Charania vividly remembers her freshman year at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, when she still "totally wanted to be a techie," as she puts it. Now 32, Charania had been the kind of kid who went to computer camp back when that meant playing video games all day.
But in college, she had a small taste of what being in the tech world as an adult woman might feel like on a day-to-day basis. "You spent 30 percent of your time in the lab," Charania recalls. "And the lab was dark and hot and it smelled like feet because it was filled with dudes who hung out there all day long. And I thought, 'Forget it. I'm not going to hang out in this stinky room.' " So she ended up majoring in business instead of computer science.
While the dearth of women in technology—over which there is much hand wringing these days—can't be completely attributed to smelly feet, Charania's overall impression that the world of technology was not a terribly attractive and welcoming place for a woman was not atypical 10 years ago.
But that's changing, thanks to organizations like the one Charania founded in 2006, Women 2.0, that helps spotlight, inspire and teach a new generation of girls and women to learn to code, study software engineering and start tech companies. Similar organizations include Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It, Black Girls Code and Femgineer, among others, most of which have been founded in the past three years (Charania says Women 2.0 is the "helping grandma" among these women-friendly tech groups).
The Facts to Prove It
If you doubt that such organizations are necessary, consider some disturbing statistics from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. In 1985, women represented 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degree recipients; by 2010, that percentage had dropped to 14 percent. And Education Week recently reported that of the 30,000 students who took the AP exam for computer science last year, less than 20 percent were female.
That may have something to do with another troubling statistic: Only 17 states count computer science as a core high school graduating requirement, meaning that students who are interested in the subject must take it as an elective or join after-school clubs, which are still largely male-dominated. So the burgeoning number of organizations for girls in tech is partly a response to school curriculums that aren't addressing 21st century realities. Until that happens, it's up to a growing number of pioneers to help build an ecosystem that makes coding and tech more girl-friendly.
Lack of Role Models
"You can't be what you can't see," says Reshma Saujani, 38, founder of New York City-based Girls Who Code, which runs 40 after-school clubs and summer programs that teach girls ages 10 to 18 about robotics, Web development and mobile development. Saujani's talking about the lack of female role models in the tech industry.
"In the 1970s, 10 percent of doctors were women, and now it's 40 percent," Saujani says. "So most girls who are in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] want to be doctors." Saujani's tech curriculum is aimed at girls to give them exposure not only to peers with similar interests but also to successful, female, volunteer teachers.
At San Francisco-based Black Girls Code, founder Kimberly Bryant is similarly concerned with not only teaching tech skills to girls but doing so in a culturally sensitive manner through the right mentors. Bryant, 47, started the organization after sending her daughter to a technology camp that was, as she puts it, "expensive, mostly boys, and had no other students of color." Black Girls Code currently has seven chapters in the U.S. and will add eight to 10 more this year.
"Most of our volunteers are professional engineers," Bryant says. "Seventy percent are women and 50 to 60 percent are people of color." Several students in the program have already created working apps. Among them is Rebecca Taylor, 14, who attended the program every Saturday for six weeks last spring and created a game called Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies with three other girls.
"We just sat down and started brainstorming, and it was actually pretty easy," Taylor says. She's now at work on another app that will connect restaurants and grocery stores that have excess inventory with not-for-profit organizations that need donations. Black Girls Code, says Taylor, "felt great because most of the girls were like me—fun loving but also loving tech."
Kisha Richardson, 34, a mentor at Black Girls Code and the founder of cleanME, a cleaning startup that has been, as its site states, "re-imagined, simplified & harmonized using our logistics technology platform," says the learning goes both ways. "I demoed the cleanME app with the girls, and they gave me a ton of ideas," Richardson says. For instance, based on comments she heard from girls in the program, Richardson is integrating a feature that allows customers to upload photos of rooms with specific instructions (i.e., "Don't touch the desk!"). Her startup, she says, illustrates to the girls how even the most basic business, such as a cleaning service, is "sprinkled" with technology.
Making Real World Connections
For girls and women, making that real world connection between technology and how it's used in the world seems to be critically important. "We make connections between technology and what they're interested in," says Saujani at Girls Who Code. "Computer science is about problem solving, so you might use it to find a cure for HIV or to make something."
At Girls Who Code, girls learn different programming languages that enable them to build apps and websites. "In our first year, we had a girl who didn't know how to use a mouse, and eight weeks later, she'd built a website to teach computer science in 32 different languages," Saujani says.
"When you teach a concept, the men tend to figure it out and just do it, and the women tend to ask why," notes Vanessa Hurst, 27, one of the co-founders of Girl Develop It. "They want more context. And it's pretty uncomfortable to ask questions when you're the only woman in the room."
Hurst says she grew up wanting to help people but she never thought that technology could be part of that goal until college. Girl Develop It, which offers evening and weekend classes mostly to adult women, starts every class "with a declaration that the person who is too cool for questions is the only person who's not welcome," Hurst says.
Generalizations aside, there does seem to be some evidence that girls and boys learn differently. "Research shows that girls love stories and characters, that their verbal skills develop earlier than boys and that they build confidence through reading," says Debra Sterling, 30, who founded GoldieBlox in 2012. The company makes a construction toy marketed primarily to girls.
Sterling financed her initial production run with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $285,881, far exceeding her $150,000 goal. Taking a page from the American Girl success story, Sterling decided to incorporate storytelling into her product, substituting the traditional instruction manual for a book centered about a character (Goldie) who solves problems by building machines. "It's purposeful play," Sterling says. "Instead of just building for the sake of building, we're answering the questions, 'Who is this for and why?' "
For now, GoldieBlox is clearly for girls—its pink and purple color scheme has even been a source of some criticism. "As we expand the line, we'll start to see new colors and characters and new story lines," Sterling says. "But it was important to me that we introduce a girl role model character to make the concept of a girl engineer normal to both boys and girls."
Entrepreneurs like Sterling are helping to plant the seeds for the next generation of female innovators. For instance, Ayah Bdeir's littleBits, a toy that appeals to both boys and girls, has been called "LEGOs for the iPad generation"; Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, engineers with Stanford, MIT and Caltech pedigrees, co-founded Roominate, a company that manufactures a dollhouse building kit that allows girls to also design their own furniture and fully wire their final creations using motors and circuit boards. And Jocelyn Leavitt and Samantha John, a former teacher and an engineer, respectively, created Hopscotch, an iPad app that gets kids ages 8 to 12 interested in coding.
"When we were first building the app, we started out with girls in mind," says Leavitt, 34. "Then we realized that boys really liked playing with it, too."
So the founders took great pains to design the product to appeal to both genders by testing colors, fonts and characters with both boys and girls, and going back to the drawing board several times. The app is a block-based digital toy that can be recombined to make drawings, animations, games and stories.
"We just released a community feature so people can upload projects for others to see," Leavitt says, "and in the past few weeks, we've seen a lot of games with poop and guns, and those are definitely made by boys." However, the programmatically rendered multicolored snowflakes and "save the princess" games also tell her that the app is reaching girls as well.
A New Breed of Entrepreneur?
Although it's not unheard of to find a female tech entrepreneur who taught herself to code in middle school, like many of her male counterparts, the far more common scenario is the female founder who came to coding relatively late—most likely in college or in the midst of starting a company. But why does that matter?
"I've been working on starting a company for a couple of years now," says 25-year-old Alyssa Ravasio. "And what I learned is that there's a really big difference between a CEO who can code and a CEO who can't. Even a rudimentary knowledge of coding helps you understand the gauge, size and scope of a task."
Ravasio, an outdoorsy type who started out as a film major at UCLA, had an idea for a Web platform called Hipcamp that would connect campers to campsites. She got her feet wet with coding at a local San Francisco chapter of Girl Develop It, moved on to an intensive nine-week coding program at Dev Bootcamp, then landed at a lean product class at Femgineer, an organization started by former Mint.com engineer Poornima Vijayashanker. As a result, Ravasio was able to build the beta version of her website by herself, and she now has the knowledge and the tools to more easily direct the two engineers she's hired to build the latest version.
Those skills got her accepted into Hacker School, a YCombinator program in New York City, where she further sharpened her tech skills for three months. "I think it's a route to economic independence," Richardson says, "but also a route to having control over the trajectory of your career, a gateway to being able to paint your own canvas."
While "brogrammers" still dominate Silicon Valley, Ravasio has noticed that across the board among startups, the focus is on getting more female engineers. And it's not altruism, the desire to be politically correct or even an acknowledgment that women in the mix sometimes makes for a more pleasant corporate culture. It's a lot simpler than that.
"It helps to have female brains building products that females are using," Ravasio says. Women make 85 percent of all household purchasing decisions and, according to a 2011 report by Parks Associates, they out-purchase and out-consume men in the digital arena. It simply makes good business sense to educate and encourage more of those consumers to also be creators.
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Photos: Jen Siska for Open Forum, GoldieBlox