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The challenges facing girls and women entering STEM and more specific disciplines like coding are threefold: lack of understanding about what it is, why they might want to do it, and how to learn in a male-dominated field. Educators in Massachusetts need to be prepared to talk about the what, why, and how of coding to girls and women in order to increase interest and support access to training.
Coding

What Coding Is About

Start with demystifying the ins and outs of coding. Be prepared to answer questions about the difference between programming and coding and what types of skills help someone learn to code. Know how to talk about the different kinds of career paths one can take with coding skills; there’s still an assumption that coding is just about programming websites, but it’s much more than that. Coding can be used to build social change apps, improve journalism, and launch entrepreneurial projects, to name a few.

There are many resources that get into the specifics of different things one can do with coding skills, such as this beginner resource on bots. By starting to understand the myriad applications of coding, girls and women can start to see themselves using such skills for work they want to pursue.

Why It Can Be Appealing to Girls

When girls and women hear “coding,” it doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of diversity and flexibility. However, these days, coders have a wide range of job opportunities that come with valuable benefits such as flexible hours, work-life balance, higher pay brackets, and paid maternity leave and childcare at some larger companies.

As educators, it’s also important to understand that learning to code isn’t only for math, science, or engineering majors. There are extensive training programs available to anyone who wants to get into the field, including people with humanities backgrounds. As an instructor from Dev Bootcamp explains, “someone with a humanities background can be just as effective, if not more effective because they have an intuitive sense of what it means to enjoy using an application.”

What this means for school-age girls is that aptitude for English, history, or arts doesn’t preclude aptitude for computer science. Wise educators will check their own assumptions when it comes to gendered ideas about skills so they don’t inadvertently direct girls away from coding simply because they enjoy reading or art.

Increasing diversity in STEM and computer science starts early, long before college. The better equipped educators are to notice and encourage girls when they express curiosity toward these disciplines and follow through by starting conversations with them about how to learn more, the more success they’ll have in helping to increase the presence of girls and women in the field.

How to Learn

A good place for educators to start is with an explanation of different programming languages. Some basic knowledge here can help women choose what kind of training they might want to pursue. This understanding is not required for getting started, but may save some time down the line.

Beyond being able to field questions and give insight on what coding is and why it holds good potential for women’s career paths, you must be able to direct interested individuals to local resources where they can learn more, find mentors, and start acquiring skills. Fortunately, there are organizations in Massachusetts providing such opportunities specifically for girls and women.

Girls Who Code helps educators organize clubs for either grades 3-5 or 6-12. They provide a curriculum and a toolkit to start your own club. There are already multiple active clubs in Massachusetts, a few in the Boston area and a couple in the Western Mass Valley, so check nearby to see if there’s a club to be joined or an experienced facilitator who can help get a new one off the ground. They also offer a seven-week summer immersion program in Boston with a comprehensive curriculum to introduce girls to “projects related to computer science, such as art, storytelling, robotics, video games, websites, and apps,” as well as women working in the field.

Another organization that supports educators in bringing coding lessons into the classroom is Vidcode, founded by three women who met at a hackathon and are committed to increasing diversity in tech.

For young women, the Boston chapter of Girl Develop It offers regular workshops on coding skills as well as social meetups with guest speakers. Black Girls Code, also a national organization, has a Boston chapter that occasionally offers day workshops.

For people of color of all genders, Resilient Coders in Boston helps young adults learn how to code and find a job in the field. They offer a bootcamp, open to those 17 and older, as well as drop-in community hours for high school students run by experienced mentors with a curriculum kids can choose to follow or not.

Not everyone can get to on-site locations. For those in more isolated areas, there are good online training options. Code.org is dedicated to providing access to computer science for girls and underrepresented minorities, and offers free online courses for grades K-12. Another reputable option is Khan Academy, which offers a range of classes in computer programming suitable for kids.

Outside of programs that are specific to coding, MassCore, the Massachusetts High School Program of Studies, was created to help improve the rate at which students get admitted to private colleges. This past June, they announced that they were forming a working group to develop more strategies around increasing “the number of students interested in pursuing computer science as a file of study in postsecondary education, and by extension, those students interested in pursuing careers in technology following graduation from a postsecondary institution.”

Increasing diversity in STEM and computer science starts early, long before college. The better equipped educators are to notice and encourage girls when they express curiosity toward these disciplines and follow through by starting conversations with them about how to learn more, the more success they’ll have in helping to increase the presence of girls and women in the field.

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Alice is a freelance writer that specializes in tech and business. She has a passion for understanding how technology is changing the human experience and communicating this societal transformation.

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