I had the great experience of mentoring at Girls Learning Code event this weekend. The event was for girls aged 8-13 and their parents to learn HTML/CSS and build a website in one day. One of their core beliefs that I really support is that they don’t want to make it seem strange that girls are coding—they just want to show them how to do it.
I was really excited to be a part of this event for a number of reasons. I have always enjoyed teaching (my English degree was originally setting me up for teacher’s college). I have been a coach/trainer/captain for horseback riding, soccer, and ultimate frisbee since I was a teenager. I was one of the first captains of our first women’s league with my local ultimate league.
I love teaching/coaching everyone, but I’ve found it particularly rewarding to work with women and girls.
To bring it back to technology, I taught myself how to code, and when I did have the opportunity to take both a computer engineering class and a computer programming class in high school, I was the only girl there every year. In my career, I have often been singled out for being a woman working in tech, especially once I moved into a management role—I once had an HR manager tell me I was her favourite because I counted favourably in her diversity statistics.
At the event today, I worked with a 10-year-old girl and her 7-year-old brother who was also attending. I didn’t want him to feel left out any more than I wanted any of the girls to feel left out, so I made sure he also had a laptop so he could participate. Both kids were great, but I couldn’t get over the microcosm I experienced in one afternoon of some of the underlying issues I see with getting girls into equal roles with boys.
This is definitely in part because of the age difference, but the boy needed a lot of more of my attention, and he was not afraid to demand it of me. It took more effort to keep him focused on the task, and he spoke up quickly to ask questions. The girl was much quicker to pick up concepts, and much quieter. It took about an hour before she would shyly ask me anything, and, even then, it was usually me pushing her to try different things as we built her website.
When the day was over, the girls were invited to put their website on the big screen for everyone to see. The girl I was working with was adamant that she did not want to go up in front of the group, despite encouragement from me and her dad, multiple times. Her dad asked her brother once and his response was “YES!”
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with either reaction. And there were lots of other girls there who couldn’t wait to show the group what they had created. But that moment of not wanting to stand up and be proud of what she had done hit me hard. This video from content creator and author, Louise Pentland states a similar experience:
I often find myself downplaying my technical skills by saying things like “I’m not a developer” or “I’m really a content person,” or by explaining my job to people who don’t understand the industry by comparing it to more traditional editorial roles at a newspaper or magazine. But the truth is I have a lot of technical skills, and years of experience behind them, and there’s no one holding me back from saying that but myself.
This is an area I try particularly hard to correct in myself. The kids’ dad (who was also great), made a comment about how his daughter wanted to be a vet, but “you know, you have to be a very strong person to do the difficult side of that job.”
Now, I have no idea what kind of conversations he might have had with his daughter to reach the conclusion that being a vet might not be for her. But I do know that when I was a bit older than she was, I wanted to be a vet too. I even went on a co-op trial day at a veterinary clinic. That’s “trial day” because I discovered that I definitely did not have the stomach for surgery that day when I almost passed out from the smell alone. I told them that story, but I also told them about my amazing cousin Katy, who is a vet tech, and is most certainly strong enough to do all aspects of animal care.
After the event, I stopped at the mall to pick up something, and as I was walking through, I passed a little girl running ahead of her family holding a shopping bag. Her (presumably) grandmother saw me smile at her and commented, “you have to teach them young!”
And that’s why we need to keep having events like Girls Learning Code. Because the ways we shape girls’ perspectives about their worth and their potential are subtle and pervasive, and most people don’t even realize they are doing it.