NASA research mathematician, Katherine Johnson, famously portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, was a progressive woman in her industry and era. As a 1960s space program “computer” — aka a human mathematician who proves and disproves complex formulas — she heroically paved the way for a new generation of coders after her. But how far have we come?
Though trends are gradually shifting, women have long been underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics/computer science) — despite their representing the majority of university graduates. Among STEM graduates aged 25 to 34, women accounted for 59 per cent of those in science and technology programs, but only 30 per cent of those who graduated from mathematics and computer science programs.
The reasons behind this phenomenon aren’t entirely conclusive, but some compelling theories exist. Perhaps women have historically chosen lower-paying yet fulfilling jobs like teaching or journalism – whereas men, sometimes considered family providers, choose high-paying careers like computer science and engineering. Maybe girls are conditioned from a young age to play house instead of video games; choose dolls over robots. Or is the threat of feeling alienated in such a male-dominated space enough of a barrier to give women pause about entering the field?
We know it isn’t a matter of aptitude. In fact, young women with high levels of mathematical ability are significantly less likely to enter STEM fields than young men – even men with lower mathematical skill levels.
I can speak anecdotally as someone who showed signs of mathematical prowess from a young age, yet wasn’t encouraged to pursue it in any sort of ambitious way. That’s not to say I was blatantly discouraged, but instructors throughout my early years were quicker to identify such roles as “administrative support” and “accounting” as being compatible with my skill sets. A part of me has always been curious about how I would have fared in computer science.
Ladies Learning Code
Flash forward nearly 20 years — deep into a marketing career and with little hands-on experience when it comes to web development, I was ready to take on the challenge of learning about coding. I became aware of an organization called Ladies Learning Code (LLC) through a colleague who volunteers as a mentor with the group, and I took the opportunity to attend their one-day course.
They have since grown dramatically, becoming a not-for-profit organization that aims to be the leading resource for women and youth to become passionate builders of technology, not just consumers, by learning technical skills in a hands-on, social and collaborative way. Now, LLC operates in over 30 cities across Canada and has had over 25,000 people attend their workshops.
My experience taught me a lot about coding and the development of women in tech. If you’re thinking of taking a workshop, here are three key things you should know before getting started:
1. No coding knowledge? No problem.
It’s okay (ideal, even) to know nothing about coding going in. The Ladies Learning Code model is geared toward beginners, so it’s perfect for complete newbies. The goal is to get women and girls excited about programming by introducing the basic skill sets, thereby increasing comfort levels and confidence.
When I arrived at my National Learn to Code Day workshop, I was immediately struck by the level of collaboration in the room. “The set-up has one mentor present for every four students, and the environment is designed to be positive and helpful. We recruit mentors who are genuinely eager to teach every person in the room,” explained Rixa Joy, Chapter Coordinator of Ladies Learning Code.
Because of this design, the intimidation factor is low. Shannon Johnson, who works as a retail merchandiser, was drawn to the course through a friend’s Facebook post. “I’ve always been good with computers but had never tried making a web page. [The course] didn’t require a huge time investment, the cost was more than reasonable, and I would be surrounded by other people with little to no skill level. These things all appealed to me.”
2. The results are immediate and rewarding
Emerging from the one-day course with a new skill set is highly satisfying.
“I was excited by the instant gratification of understanding the basics right away; the fact that we actually left the class with the ability to create something of our own,” said Johnson.
“I was also really surprised by how easy it was. I’m not going to say I mastered everything instantly, but I definitely left the class with enough knowledge and resources to continue exploring independently.”
3. Women in ICT are in demand
Over half of Canadians believe there are not enough women in the ICT field. Taking the course yourself, and even encouraging a young friend or family member to do the same, can contribute toward leveling the playing field for women in STEM.
“Three-quarters of Canadians believe filling positions today for high-tech jobs is a problem,” said Joy. “Women currently hold less than 25% of all technology roles in Canada, and research suggests the gap is getting worse.”
The good news is, the proliferation of women in programming is highly supported. “As a grassroots not-for-profit, managing growth and funding is always a challenge,” described Joy. “We’ve been so fortunate to have the financial support of partners and corporations like Microsoft and Google, and the Government of Canada recently announced an unprecedented investment of $50 million over the next two years for coding. So we’re confident that investment for groups like ours to grow will be less of a challenge in the future.”
Teaching 10 million Canadians to code
The future of coding is looking very positive. Ladies Learning Code recently launched Canada Learning Code — an evolution of their programs over the years. The goal of the new initiative is to teach 10 million Canadians to code over the next 10 years.
For those already proficient in coding, there’s also another way to take part. By volunteering as a coding mentor, you can support the organization and help expand the skills of other Canadians.
“The best way for someone to mentor with us is to check out our mentor handbook and join our mailing list,” suggested Joy. “When we’re in need of mentors, we reach out to those in the pool. We’ve also had some learners take our workshops and come back to mentor a year later. ”
For more upcoming events, check out the Ladies Learning Code website here.