Raising Girls to Become Women in Tech
Serena Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She started playing tennis at age 4 and has worked very hard to become one of the best. Imagine if she had not picked up a tennis racket until she was 15 years old. It’s very unlikely that she would have turned out the greatest of all time. It is also possible that she might have struggled at first and then eventually lost interest in tennis. When a child starts a sport at such a young age, they build incredible muscle memory and if they stick with it, they can achieve greatness.
There is a push to have more women in STEM. However, we can’t wait until they are 15 years old to give them the exposure. Just like Serena Williams, the sooner we put that STEM racket in their hands the more likely they are to stick with it and achieve great things. In order to have more women in STEM in 10 years, we need more girls in STEM today.
Currently, only 3% of women entrepreneurs start ICT businesses, compared to 11% for men. In 2017 only 2% of venture dollars in the US went to woman founders. This difference won’t disappear overnight but we can start planting seeds today.
This is a difficult problem to solve anywhere in the world. It requires a different way of thinking.
According to a research conducted by GTI Media and Ernest and Young found that more than half (54%) of the students who took part said that their parents tried to influence their choice of course or career. It also found that students did not object to parents’ attempts to influence them; in fact 66% thought this was the right thing for parents to do. Our parents influence our career choices. If we want more girls in STEM, they need to see their parents in STEM. More importantly, they need to see their mothers and grandmothers in STEM. If they don’t, they might believe that you must inherit a “male brain” — technical skills are not seen as a part of a woman’s feminine legacy.
How do you solve this problem? How do change this perception for the girls?
Knitting is the answer.
The similarities between a knitting pattern and a computer program are stunning. Knitting uses the same types of loops, conditions and concepts of functions as a computer language. “Knits” and “purls” are essentially the 0s and 1s of computer programming, and when used in infinite combinations, can create as much variation as any code. Learning to knit, then, is a self-obvious stepping-stone to learning to code.
It is aimed at showing that the same logical thinking required for coding is also required for knitting. It also reinforces connections between generations of women, encouraging them to see themselves not only as domestic agents but also as agents of change. It’s about bringing multiple generations together and showing how an ancient skill can be used to teach a 21st century skill.
Last year we embarked on a pilot of Knit2code where we introduced 100 young girls to coding through knitting. We had grandmothers and mothers volunteering, teaching the girls how to knit. What was exciting is that the girls who were first introduced to coding through knitting performed better in Java and Python when they progressed to coding on a PC. The difference was that they spent more time learning the foundation of computer science and most importantly paying attention to detail. Writing a Python code by hand is no small feat.
How do pilots learn to fly? Pilots don’t just jump on a plane and fly. They learn on a simulator. By the time they get on the real plane they have learned to deal with all potential crises that they could face. Knit2code works in a similar fashion. It serves as a simulator for coding. The children learn to code without even touching a computer. Imagine what this means for the 90% of people in Africa who do not have access to computer or the internet. In fact, only 38% of the global population owns a computer. This isn’t just about the girls.
By thinking differently about coding and creating simulators for coding, we remove the biggest barrier the majority of poor communities have to learning how to code. THE COMPUTER.
Recently we moved to a new house. I was looking for a doctor close by because my youngest child is asthmatic. A friend sent me a list of doctors and it hit me that I didn’t care whether the doctor was male or female. And most people don’t care about the gender of our physicians. In fact, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, for the first time ever, more women than men have enrolled in medical schools in the United States.
I hope that someday, we can see the same thing in tech. More women in tech might lead to more venture capital investment in women led organizations. This wont happen unless there’s a shift in how young girls see tech. That can only change if they see their mothers and grandmothers in it. Unless we remove the bro-code and the musculinity associated with tech careers by showing girls that tasks traditionally labeled as women’s work are important and hold many of the technical challenges as anything that men do.