August 20, 2012

‘Girl geeks’ tackle science gender imbalance


It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, but a group of youngsters have chosen to spend two and a half hours in a Manchester library to learn what is still a very “boys-only” science – computer coding.

“I just made it pop up something that says ‘I am the best!’” exclaims 11 year old Florence Jones. She has just got to grips with how to write code for the computer and make it do exactly as she wants, rather than being content with what most of us do, namely, use a program someone else has written.

“Coding means to tell the computer what to do. It means you can create your own stuff, and also it means you can make it unique. Me and my friend both like computers so we just thought we’d come along and see what it’s like,” Florence says.

Parents say it’s important their kids understand the machines they use every day

She is one of around 20 young girls – and a few boys – who had come to this taster session in computer coding run by Manchester Girl Geeks, a group of volunteers working to get more girls and women interested in science.

Cakes and coding

The Girl Geeks run talks and workshops on everything from math to solar physics, while encouraging participants to bring homemade cakes to keep spirits high.

“Girls are generally not encouraged to do any programming because it is still regarded as something that boys do,” says Sam Baile, a computer graduate at Manchester University and one of the founders of Manchester Girl Geeks.

“There have been some studies [showing] that girls aren’t really into programming just for the sake of making elegant code, but because it helps them find solutions to solve problems, for instance, in health care or in other areas where they can actually do something useful,” says Baile.

Sam Baile is very pleased that so many girls have chosen to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon in front of a computer screen, and hopes at least some of them will develop an appetite to go on and take their interest further.

With the help of www.codeacademy.com, the Girl Geeks teach the first steps of coding JavaScript

“It’s great to see so many girls come along. I know that not all of them will go away and become top programmers, but just having a general understanding of how things work I think is already quite helpful in dealing with technology in general.”

A man’s world

At the coding workshop Florence is accompanied by her mother, Paula Jones. She is very happy to see her daughter taking an interest in computers and science at such an early stage. As a youth worker, she says she encounters many people who still think science is a man’s world.

“I’ve been really shocked how many of the girls will say ‘Well, a doctor is a man’s job,’ and particularly nowadays when you’ve plenty of doctors who are women. But they’ll say ‘Well, you say doctor and it sounds like a man.’ So, I think you’ve got quite a lot to overcome really – even in 2012,” says Jones.

British girls tend to do well in science at school. The number of female science university graduates is growing. But women are still under-represented in higher science positions and some sciences are still perceived to be the realm of boys. Computer coding is one of them.

“There is this sense that coding and programming is this geeky, lonely, anti-social activity that is more attractive to men than women,” says Liz Hannaford, a media lecturer at Salford University.

Hannaford decided to teach herself computer programming in her spare time earlier this year. She wants to be able to help her two young daughters, aged 5 and 7, if they should ever want to learn coding.

The Manchester Girl Geeks want to break down the prevalent stereotypes – early

“I’d love them to know how all this works and to be interested in it and to get into it, but if I can’t do it myself I’m not much of a role model or a help to them,” Hannaford says. She is now looking into the possibility of setting up a computer programming course at her daughters’ primary school.

Like the Manchester Girl Geeks, Liz Hannaford believes young girls preparing for the future could do a lot worse than learning how to make computers work.

Good programmers are hard to find. But most industries will be looking for IT professionals with coding skills for years to come. The girls at the Girl Geek’s workshop might have taken their first step towards controlling their own computing future.




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