Guest post by Jon Mattingly, co-founder and CEO of Kodable, an ed-tech startup that provides lessons to educators to help them teach students to code.
One of the worst-kept secrets in the tech world is how “awful” tech companies can be to women. You don’t have to go far to find a story about sexism or discrimination. There are a lot of theories about why this is happening, but I think the root cause doesn’t get enough exposure: More girls need to be encouraged to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM-related fields from a very young age.
Only 19 percent of recent AP Computer Science test takers were female. By college, female computer science majors are only 17 percent of the population. Why is this?
Well, the answer can be found at your local toy store. Walk down the aisles and it’s pretty obvious who is “supposed” to build things and who is “supposed” to cook and play dress-up. Society has been systematically pushing girls away from STEM-related fields from a very young age, conditioning them to play with dolls while boys played with blocks. It’s not hard to see the road things will take from there.
Teach Young Girls to Code
The good news is that there are a ton of smart people and great organizations tackling this problem head on. We’re just a few years into the “teach kids to code” movement and we’re already seeing a lot of progress. In 2016, 49 percent of students doing an “Hour of Code” were female.
Another encouraging element is that kids in middle school and high school no longer treat coding and STEM as this weird, nerdy thing that is was in the 90s, probably because it has taken over their worlds. Everyone has a smartphone now. When I was young, I asked for a graphing calculator for Christmas so I could code games on it. I was teased mercilessly. Now, everyone wants to learn how to build iPhone apps.
However, the solution I’m the biggest advocate for, and where we’ll really see long-term success, is to cut the problem off at the source. We need to do more to encourage young girls to pursue STEM fields. I truly believe the root cause for all of this is the fact that girls have been funneled away from STEM, causing the gender imbalance from the time that kids are four and five years old. My co-founder and I support this so much, we started a company around it.
At Kodable, over half of our users are girls. This is because we’re making STEM and computer science available to ALL kids regardless of gender, at an age where they are less likely to be confronted with stereotypes. One of our core beliefs is that our product should always be equally inviting to boys and girls, instead of targeting one group over another.
Coding in elementary school should be all about freedom of choice and freedom of expression, not about dolls vs. blocks. A computer doesn’t care about your gender, and neither should your students.
Encourage Girls in STEM Subjects
Initiatives that specifically focus on increasing the number of women in computer science at the high school level and higher are great, but these are reactive instead of proactive. This approach would be counterproductive at the elementary school level. A 5-year-old girl would never think that she needed more support and attention than a boy when learning computer science–and she doesn’t. Kids today should grow up in an environment where everyone is treated like they have equal ability to do anything they set their minds to.
My co-founder Grechen didn’t take a website design class in high school because she didn’t want to be the only girl in a class full of boys. Thankfully, this is starting to change.
We get just as many notes from parents saying their daughters are enjoying Kodable as from parents with sons. The very first Kodable users are now entering middle school, and pretty soon they will be in high school and college, ready to move into a workforce that they have the power to transform. I take comfort in this, knowing there is a lasting change happening, where all people will someday feel equally empowered in tech.