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5 Ways to Empower Girls to Code

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Part two of the Everyday Empowerment series for girls and women
Imagine a brand new language is replacing English as THE leading international means of communication -- its vocabulary is growing exponentially, soon only those who speak it fluently will be able to fully participate in the world, do business, lead, shape, innovate...

Now imagine the vast majority of girls and women are not learning this language.

That is the kind of crisis we are facing right now in technology. Computer coding is the new literacy in our thriving digital world but the number of girls and young women learning the language has hit an all time low.

The tech sector has transformed our lives more than any other in the last 25 years with seismic and irreversible shifts in the way we communicate, do business and organise our lives, and it promises to define the way we live well into the future.

But at the rate we are going, the vast majority of the creators, controllers and architects of this brave new world will increasingly be men. Currently, only 25 percent of the US computer workforce is female and that is set to tumble -- the Department of Labor estimates that by 2020 there will be more than 1.4 million computing-related jobs but only 3% of them are likely to be filled by women.

How so? Women are reaching parity in numbers with men across most fields in education and industry. And yet the number of US female computer science (CS) graduates fell dramatically from 37 per cent in 1984 to just 18 per cent in 2015, despite the industry offering some of the best paid careers out there. And now, less than 1 per cent of all college freshwomen say they intend to major in computer science.

Multiple factors contribute to the historical and current lack of female participation in CS and programming with popular culture often cited as a leading recent culprit in alienating girls from computing -- for example, family films show five times as many men as women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Lack of knowledge or inaccurate perceptions about computing careers and inadequate CS education are also contributors.

So how can we put an end to this extreme female under-representation and encourage our daughters into computer science?

1. Creator or consumer?

We need our girls to really get how exciting and important this is for their future. Technology increasingly permeates every aspect of society and is a powerful agent of change. Whether or not they pursue tech careers, we must make our daughters understand that a solid computer science education is a must have - it will help them realize their dreams and goals in whatever industry they choose, from art to medicine, and help put them in control of their lives as innovators and creators, not just consumers.

2. Encourage them to think smart

Encouragement from adults and peers is the number one contributor to a girl's decision to pursue computer science, whether or not that parent has technical expertise herself.

Define and prioritize computer science for them: CS is not just about algorithmic problem-solving -- it will enhance critical thinking across their whole curriculum and personal lives. Specifically, it will teach them how to manage, process, visualize and interpret data, to model and simulate real-world problems, to create and design brand new graphics and products (with code), to program and design new games, websites, software and robotics (with code), to understand security systems and to consider the wider ethical and social impact of technology.

But what exactly is Code? There are many different computer coding languages but most coders specialise in just one or two depending on what they want to create. Google's initiative to encourage girls into coding, Made with Code, describes it this way: "Simply put, code is a tool that lets you write your story with technology. If you can code, you can communicate your ideas with a computer or a program so they can be brought to life in bigger, brighter, and more creative ways."

3. Advocate for our girls

The biggest drop-off in CS education for girls is between the ages of 13 and 16 when participation plummets from 66 per cent to 32 per cent.

One of the problems in the US is that most elementary and public schools do not teach computer science to begin with, and three out of four of those that do only teach how to use technology, rather than how to create it. And only 31 states allow students to count computer science courses toward high school graduation.

You can use these advocacy tools from Code.org to research and campaign for better CS education where you are.

More resources for educators and businesses can be found at the National Center for Women & Information Technology

4. Extracurricular

Girls tend to have later exposure to computing and less self-identification with it (outside of school) than boys. Providing our daughters with supported opportunities to practice general computer skills from a young age is an important part of igniting their passion and confidence in technology.

Leading the way in extra-curricular computer science is the not-for-profit Girls Who Code (GWC). Founded in 2011, GWC has one mission -- to close the technology gender gap. Its goal is to expose a million young women to computer-science education and training by the end of 2020 by partnering with US universities, elementary and secondary schools, and large corporations to sponsor after-school clubs and summer immersion programs for girls in grades 6 to 12.

Founder, Reshma Saujani, says: "By actually embedding classrooms in today's leading companies that create products girls use every day, we show them, 'Look, you can do this. You can code this. This is a world that is open to you, and once you learn this skill set, the possibilities are endless.'"

There are also some great online resources to introduce children to coding -- see below.

5. Get started...

Ask your daughter to imagine that half the world (that's them!) is designing half the video games, half the apps, half the websites, robotics, software programs etc. How different might that world look? What would THEY design?

Then challenge her to create something with her first piece of code. These websites are some of the best for parents, children and young people to get started with: Code.org, Scratch, and Mozilla.

The world is missing out on the technological innovations, solutions, and creations of up to 50 per cent of the population. Increasing the number of girls studying computer science is as crucial to the future of gender equality as encouraging them to run for political office. As the Google slogan says, let's "Do the Right Thing."