Some of the leading ladies of the New York tech scene took time out of their schedules to talk about a subject they all are deeply passionate about – bringing more girls into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.
The event, held at the Apple Store in SoHo, was hosted by Women Innovate Mobile’s Kelly Hoey. The panelists included Adda Birnir, co-founder of SkillCrush, Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, Samantha John, co-founder of Hopscotch, Kristen Titus, executive director of Girls Who Code and Rachel Weiss, VP of digital innovation and new business ventures at L’Oreal.
What moves these women to do what they do? Based out of San Francisco, Black Girls Code (BGC) was inspired by Bryant’s desire to motivate her daughter to continue with science through high school and not drop it, as many of her peers had. Having degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, Bryant worried about the trend of girls straying away from science. “We wanted to focus on underrepresented communities like African Americans, Latinas and Native Americans,” she said, “…to create a culturally sensitive environment and syllabus.” Through the program, Bryant wanted to address the self-esteem and self-actualization issues that plague women in these communities.
Working in a similar vein is Titus from Girls Who Code (GWC). She shared the gloomy statistics of the number of women receiving computer science degrees – 30 years ago, 37% of the degrees went to women as opposed to today’s 12%. “We’re starting to see some real change now,” Titus said, but only after having mobilized everyone from the White House to Fortune500 CEOs to champion the cause.
For Weiss, the inspiration to work with the L’Oreal Women in Digital venture is to show people what ladies working in technology look like. Since the cosmetic superbrand’s customers are primarily women, Weiss comes up with ways to communicate with the market through technology developed by women. “We need to let girls know that they can be chic and be a geek,” she said succinctly, “and that technology can help them become economically viable.”
Apart from Weiss, all the other women are involved in programs that teach people how to code. The students range from as young as five years old (users of the Hopscotch visual programming app for kids) to older adults who sign up for SkillCrush’s online three-week courses in various programming languages.
When Hoey asked what surprised and motivated the panelists in their work, the answers varied – for Birnir it was the geographic distribution of her students, with some from as far away as Australia signing up online; Titus illustrated how students at GWC see themselves as part of a movement, by narrating the story of a student from Senegal who created a website dedicated to the efforts of GWC that was translated into 32 languages; seeing entrepreneurs L’Oreal had initially supported raise more funds and grow their companies was Weiss’ favorite part of her job, while John said it was receiving feedback from Hopscotch’s young users who showed that they were understanding programming concepts made her day.
Tackling the issue of how to get girls interested and involved in STEM fields, Bryant said it’s never too early to begin, supporting John’s idea to introduce young children to coding. Agreeing with her was Titus who said, “Parents have to push kids to think about where the products come from, what the backend looks like.” Another responsibility parents have, Weiss added, was to change their attitudes, since it affected their daughters’ decisions to drop out of STEM classes – “They need to know that it’s OK to be a girl and to be in science.”
Having girls who participated in the programs go back and advocate the importance of science to their peers is how Bryant and Titus see their programs growing. Ridiculing the “Pink Aisle” indoctrination that begins at an early age for girls, Bryant said, “We need to change the media image and give girls models they can look up to.” Titus introduces role models to her students through the GWC flagship program that allows students to work with tech companies like Twitter. And at L’Oreal, Weiss uses the company’s media and financial resources to push the message out and support female entrepreneurs.