COVID-19 creates new barriers to getting girls into tech
As mentors leave and schools continue remote learning, lifting up the future female worker requires thinking differently, says the CEO of Girls Who Code.
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Even with all the progress made in getting more women to study computer sciences, this next generation of girls may have it harder than others trying to jump into a tech career.
As students continue remote learning, a lack of resources at home can make it nearly impossible to study properly and connect with teachers. And when women do enter the workforce, it will be harder to find female mentors as we emerge from the COVID-19 era. Multiple family demands in the pandemic are causing women to abandon the workforce four times the rate of men.
The No. 1 problem being flagged by her team: a lack of mentors. As senior women leave the tech workforce, there are fewer in leadership roles to guide the way and show what's possible.
"You cannot be what you cannot see," Saujani said. "And that problem has been exacerbated post-COVID."
A lack of access to hardware is a setback for every student, but the pandemic's distance learning challenges led Girls Who Code to change how it approached summer coding classes. For students who may need to share equipment with a sibling, lessons allowed for more flexibility in the day. Hotspots were sent to all students who needed it. And, Saujani said, teachers met with students before classes to connect better.
The pivot to virtual did have its positives. Those who couldn't attend before because of distance could learn from anywhere — be it Alabama, Oakland, New Jersey, Bangalore or Jamaica.
"You've raised your hand, and you want to learn how to code. I can teach you. Now that's powerful," Saujani said.
Part of the mission of Girls Who Code is also to help change the conversation within our culture. The organization recently partnered with American Girls dolls for a series of scholarships. This year, the doll maker launched a character that's an aspiring game developer: a Pac-Man wiz from the '80s named Courtney (and she even has a working arcade cabinet accessory).
Of course a doll alone won't teach a child programming, but as Saujani explains, exposure at a young age to these concepts helps girls not think about developing video games as a girl thing or boy thing. "It makes girls imagine they can be anything and everything."
Imagery like that is just another tool in thinking differently to help inspire -- especially when a school's Zoom call may be quite uninspiring in a distracting home environment.