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The mission to get girls coding doesn’t take a COVID break

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Chromebooks lie out after being cleaned in preparation for the Sept. 8 start of school at Newfield Elementary School on August 31, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.

The non-profit Girls Who Code saw a 200% increase in enrollment as it pivoted to online learning during the pandemic. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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The gender gap in tech starts pretty early. Look at computer science students: Roughly 4 out of 5 bachelor’s degrees in that field go to men. That’s why the nonprofit Girls Who Code aims to get girls interested at a young age — as early as third grade.

Since the organization was founded in 2012, hundreds of thousands of girls have gone through its clubs and summer immersion programs. When COVID-19 canceled in-person classes, they moved totally online. That actually allowed Girls Who Code to grow, and enrollment went up 200%.

I spoke with Tarika Barrett, who took over as CEO this year. She said they had to design their new model with the hardest-to-reach girls in mind. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Tarika Barrett (Courtesy Girls Who Code).

Tarika Barrett: We knew our girls were driving to fast-food parking lots to get Wi-Fi, so we thought about Wi-Fi, we thought about hardware, we thought about living circumstances. Often, our girls couldn’t even turn their cameras on because they were sharing the computer with other siblings. And we tried to bring best practices in digital learning, so shorter days, live and asynchronous instruction, small-group work, office hours and project-based learning because we knew that we’d have to do that for our students, and that we were doing the kinds of outreach and really being responsive to the needs of our community.

Jed Kim: How did you design your courses specifically for slow internet connections?

Barrett: We sent out a survey to our participants asking everything: What do you need? Do you need us to send you a computer? Do you have broadband? And even as they answered those questions and we filled those gaps, we still had things happen in real time. We have teaching assistants who are former Girls Who Code students who went through the summer immersion program. They’re there with the facilitators in this virtual classroom to step in and troubleshoot at any given moment. And so that coupled with both synchronous and asynchronous instruction meant that even if a girl got stuck with some tech thing that happened, that could always be made up in office hours. Or there was always someone following up and saying, “What do you need?” And frankly, we have to bring some of that thinking back into the fall, even if we’re in-person, because it really made the difference for so many students that we don’t want to lose that kind of innovation.

Kim: It’s hard enough to recruit girls into coding. What are the challenges with regards to keeping them in it?

Barrett: Fifty percent of women leave the tech industry by the age of 35. We know this from a study that we did with Accenture. And we also saw from this study that if we were able to make workplaces more welcoming for women, we would see 3 million more women, frankly, in the tech industry, which is just staggering. Even though we have so many young women who are talented and motivated and have demonstrated an interest in computer science and have gone through all of this, they often encounter these barriers after they’ve “made it.” They interview and somehow aren’t getting these internships, aren’t getting these jobs. And for the young women who actually do get these opportunities, they’re still encountering a pretty punishing work culture. They’re coming across lots of different challenges. Not seeing women who, frankly, look like me in senior leadership, not having opportunities for promotion, not really feeling as though the affinity groups are there to support them. And so part of what we do is, frankly, to continue to talk to our corporate partners, to talk more widely to members of industry, really getting them to get rid of outdated notions, frankly, around credentialing that continue to isolate and exclude historically marginalized groups in terms of hiring with an obsession on Ivy League credentials and other things. And then, we also talk about what’s the ecosystem that’s in these companies that support women when they actually get there.

Kim: You’re only the second person to hold the CEO role at Girls Who Code. How are you making this role your own?

Barrett: I am an educator. I worked for the New York City Department of Education and had the good fortune of leading the team that designed and launched New York City’s first-ever high school focused on software engineering. And it was during that time that I saw that issues of equity, especially in terms of gender, were at the center of the work we were trying to do as we got this high school off the ground, and then still struggle to get girls to participate, and deeply aware of how the system isn’t really set up to close the gender gap intact. And then, the other thing that I think is really, really important as a Black woman is that are Black and brown girls [seeing] me sitting in the seat?

Kim: How’s your coding?

Barrett: Are you talking to my kids who are also trolling me about that? [Laughs] I often joke with them. They know that I have had challenges with even making sure that my sprite in Scratch has the clothing on their body in the right way. Let’s just say that my coding skills are not that sharp. But I’ve been a lifelong educator deeply committed to issues of equity in education, both in terms of race and gender. And so even though I’m not a coder myself, let’s face it, tech jobs are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying in our economy. And my job as CEO of Girls Who Code is to make sure that our girls, and especially our Black and brown girls and women, have these opportunities and get a chance to really have pathways into this industry that will lead, frankly, to upward mobility and quality of life that a career in tech can provide.

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