Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani: Why An 'Hour of Code' Isn’t Enough

column | EdSurge Podcast

Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani: Why An 'Hour of Code' Isn’t Enough

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Jul 18, 2017

Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani: Why An 'Hour of Code' Isn’t Enough

It’s no shock to anyone—there is a gender disparity problem in the computer science world. The computing industry’s rate of job creation in the United States may be three times that of other industries, but the number of females attaining computer science degrees is falling, as U.S. News reports: “In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women, but by 2014, that number had dropped to 18 percent.”

However, Reshma Saujani doesn’t think the issues merely lie in offering girls more opportunities to learn. Rather, it’s a problem of culture and consistency. “A girl doing an ‘hour of code’ is not going to have an epiphany that is going to convert her,” she tells EdSurge.

Saujani, a former lawyer and the CEO/founder of Girls Who Code in 2012, has strong beliefs about how the political landscape will and should affect computer science education, as well as the biggest hurdles facing those hoping to adequately educate girls on coding. Luckily, EdSurge got the opportunity to sit down with her right before her closing keynote at the 2017 ISTE conference in San Antonio, Texas. Check it out on the EdSurge podcast, or scroll below to get right to the Q&A.

EdSurge: Why Girls Who Code?

Reshma Saujani: I'm Reshma Saujani, the CEO and founder of Girls Who Code. To be honest, I am a super-weird person to be running this kind of organization where I’m teaching girls to code, because I did not actually major in computer science. I started this organization because I believe that girls are change-makers, and I believe that teaching them how to code is going to help them solve our world's biggest problems. We're living in a time where we're dependent on American women as our bread winners—45% of American women are the ones who pay the mortgage, who put food on the table. These are good-paying jobs, and quite frankly, as 45% of the things we do becomes automated in the next five years, these will be “the” jobs. So, it’s important to make sure that women are not left out.

It's interesting how you put that, because I was an art major and went into the classroom to teach science, so I felt under-prepared. You started out as a lawyer, and then moved to this. What was that transition like?

For my whole life, I thought I was getting every pedigree and every credential to do the work that I wanted to do. But then I found myself at age 33 in the fetal position every day, hating my job, and very far away from the public service work that I thought I was put on this earth to do. In a person’s life, their career journey takes a lot of twists and turns. The core of what I wanted to do in my life ever since I was 12-years-old was to make a difference and to create equity and opportunity for underserved communities. And that's what I'm trying to do, through Girls Who Code and through the opportunities that we're creating for young girls.

Do you think that politics will play a role in computer science education?

Politics plays a huge role. Jobs have fundamentally changed and we're not communicating that to our children or to parents or even to educators. I think that it's very hard for somebody who has been working in the auto industry their whole life or in a factory, to understand that these are good-paying jobs that are now changing radically. If they've never been exposed to computer science or to coding when they were growing up, how can we expect them to tell their children, "You should learn how to code because that's the jobs of the future"? Unfortunately, we can’t, so we need to rely on policymakers and politicians to create these opportunities for the citizenry.

Let's focus on the girls, for a second. What do you think are the biggest hurdles facing us in educating female students on how to code?

A big one is culture. I think we live in a society where it's cool to say that you hate math and science when you don't.

Why is that?

It's just something that's been happening since the '80s. I’ve walked into a Forever 21 store and seen a T-shirt that says, "I'm allergic to Algebra." Media matters. Television matters. Magazines matter. Teen girls decide what's cool and what's not cool, and unfortunately, the image of a coder is a dorky guy sitting in a basement somewhere drinking a Red Bull—and that’s not cool. It’s this image that has discouraged our girls from going into this field.

The good news, however, is that it's not about aptitude. Girls are outperforming boys in math and science from middle school on up. It's really more about interest, which is fixable.

The second thing we talk about a lot is this idea of bravery. We teach our girls to be perfect, and this actually generates a mindset where there’s a lot of fear around failure. But, so much about learning how to code is learning about getting comfortable with an iterative process of failure, of learning from that annoying semicolon being in the wrong place, and making that mistake over and over again. If you don't like to do something that you're not immediately good at, you're going to gravitate away from coding. We need to have girls sit with that discomfort and realize that it's the most awesome thing when your idea comes into life. That failure and rejection are powerful tools to obtaining success, greatness, and joy.

I understand that that is a big part of the Girls Who Code curriculum. How do you bring in those ideas of confidence and bravery?

We get them to practice failure, and we get them to exercise their confidence by publicly speaking their ideas, by raising their hand high and acknowledging when they don't know the answer... I think the coding, in and of itself, teaches bravery.

All this aside, there are some people out there that think that organizations like Black Girls Code or Girls Who Code are exclusionary—that because they focus on girls or students of color, they exclude students. How do you respond to someone that feels that way?

First off, I have a son and when I see the world through his eyes, I see that he's going to have a lot of privileges that, honestly, if he was a girl, he just wouldn't have. However, I do believe there are more men today who see that the disparity in opportunities, and want their girls and daughters to have these opportunities. I was at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I was meeting with the women in a computing group, and there were four men there. I asked, "Who are you?" And they responded with, "We're actually the men who are supporting the women in this computing group." It was very refreshing.

These male allies feel it's their obligation in the classroom, when a girl's not being called on, to give their female counterparts the opportunity to speak up. Or, when there's a sexist statement made while working, they raise their hand and to be advocates. It was awesome to really see the male ally movement shaping and growing.

Do you think that schools play a role in the focusing on computer science, or it is better to let informal organizations do the work?

I think schools play a great role. If we're not careful, the gender problem and the race problem can actually get worse. As computer science becomes more popularized, we need to mandate it and change the culture. There's no way all the girls are going to wake up tomorrow and say, "I want to learn how to code." We must be very intentional about it. We can never take our eyes off gender. Schools can play a great role in making this as quick as possible, but they can also make it worse.

Finally, I have a question sourced from Twitter that I've been wanting to ask you. How much money do you think it should cost a parent or a school to teach a young girl how to code?

That's a great question. To be honest, it's going to cost a lot. Intervention is expensive, and unfortunately, a girl doing an “hour of code” is not going to have an epiphany that is going to convert her. It has to be continuous, repetitive, intensive… and that's expensive. We need to be prepared to invest a lot in our girls.

I couldn't agree more—and actually, I’d like to ask one last question. Do you have any advice for the parents and teachers as they try to work together on this?

Tell your girls to tinker, to take things apart. We don't let our girls get dirty, play, take things apart, or build and create. We need to encourage them to do that at a very, very young age. It can be as simple as taking your daughter when you’re fixing a broken appliance. Show your daughter how to fix things.

When you're an educator, encourage her to go to stick with something and meet her where she's at with those moments. Just because she loved math once and now hates it doesn’t mean she’ll hate it forever. Don’t give up.

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