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Girls need role models if we’re going to close the gender gap

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and Kathryn Semogas, Girls Who Code Canada Programs Coordinator

When visiting cities around the world to talk about the gender gap in tech, we at Girls Who Code sometimes challenge audiences and classrooms to name an influential woman who has shaped the history of technology. Usually, not a single person raises their hand to give a name.

A survey we recently ran in Canada confirmed the same. Eighty-two percent of Canadian adults imagine a man when they picture a computer scientist, 70 percent said they had no female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) growing up, and over half could not name a single women scientist or engineer.

These biases tell a broader story about how the biases we experience as kids—and impart on our own kids today—contribute to the gender gap in tech.

We learned from our study that men were nearly two times more likely than women to have dreamed of becoming a computer scientist when they were young. That’s not because men are more inclined to go into computing. It’s because at some point throughout their childhood, we indicate to our boys—either through role models or media or cultural stereotypes—that they belong in science, technology, math. We don’t give our girls the same signals.

And now, according to the latest data, women make up only 23 percent of the STEM workforce. At the current pace, the gender gap in tech in Canada could take up to 140 years to close. We can’t afford to wait that long—our communities and our economies depend on bringing more girls into computing.

At Girls Who Code, we subscribe to the idea that ‘we cannot be what we cannot see.’ Girls who lack female role models in computing and engineering are unlikely to pursue the field because they don’t see themselves reflected among its champions. There’s a lingering crisis of confidence facing women and girls when it comes to their abilities in computer science and STEM in large part because they’re lacking visible role models.

According to research by Stanford professor Raj Chetty, if girls were as exposed to female inventors at the same rates as boys are to male inventors, female innovation rates would rise by 164 percent and the gender gap in innovation would fall by 55 percent. By making female role models in tech more visible, we believe we can close the gender gap in the field.

If we want to make strides towards closing the gender gap in tech, we will need to put a greater emphasis on providing girls with female role models in technology, and a young age—before they begin to internalize societal notions of what a coder looks like and does.

As a result of leadership from Canadian women who have built organizations that expose more women and girls to STEM, Canada’s technology community has made a clear commitment to addressing gender disparity. What’s more, Canadian women in STEM are solving real-world problems. That’s why Girls Who Code has been intentional about spotlighting women in tech in our Clubs curriculum. In our Clubs in Canada, girls will learn about Canadian women like Nadia Hamilton, Jodi Kovitz, Saadia Muzaffar, Natalie Cartwright, Janelle Hinds, and more trailblazers in the field.

And the good news is that we’re seeing a wave of interest in our programs, and support for our movement. Since Girls Who Code launched in Canada last year, we’ve received hundreds of applications to start after-school coding Clubs—and we’re in good company with the likes of Canada Learning Code, Actua and Kids Code Jeunesse, among others.

Our efforts to rapidly accelerate the rate at which women enter the STEM workforce in Canada—and indeed around the world— aim to complement homegrown efforts and to build a global sisterhood. Working together across borders with community organizations, business, media, and government, we can begin to shift decades-old notions about who can and should be in computing. And eventually, we can begin to tilt our workplaces towards parity and our communities towards a more successful, equal future.

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Reshma Saujani is the Founder and CEO of​ ​Girls Who Code, an international non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology.

Kathryn Semogas is the Canada Programs Coordinator for Girls Who Code.

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