How girls get tech by making apps

Two new films CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap and CODEGIRL show the challenges girls in tech face – and the rewards they can enjoy when they do. Claire Comins chats to the film makers and organisations encouraging girls to discover computer science – and finds the situation is more positive than pessimistic

‘What we really need is a TV show with a kick-ass female coder character.’ Film director Robin Reynolds is speaking on a panel following a debut screening of her movie CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

CODE exposes the dearth of American female and minority software engineers and explores the reasons for this gender gap and digital divide. The statistics are clear: tech jobs are growing three times faster than colleges can produce computer science grads – in the States alone, there will be one million unfulfilled software engineering jobs by 2020. But despite the opportunities, girls are not striving to fill those jobs. The reasons are a mix of cultural mindsets, stereotypes and educational hurdles. But the most alarming of all in our modern tech-connected society is the sexism women so often encounter in tech companies.

Why does this exist? The film proposes many challenges girls face but the reality is that until there are more women in those tech companies at the outset, it’s going to be hard to change company culture.

The obvious solution is to have more women founding tech companies. Essentially, the CEO of a tech company does not need to be its chief engineer, but the fact is no one is going to invest in a tech startup that does not show an outstanding understanding of its own industry.

In San Francisco’s Bay Area, there’s plenty of good work being done by non-profits and profitable tech companies to get more girls interested in coding. Programs with oodles of girl appeal include where you’ll find girl characters from Disney’s Frozen in the coding challenges and girls presenting the teaching videos. Google’s madewithcode, meanwhile, is full of design inspiration for visually-oriented girls, and Facebook’s latest education program features girls of all ethnic origins in its entry-level videos explaining what computer science is.

Self-teaching programs like Codecademy and KhanAcademy are great for motivated girls who like to learn through coding challenges. The courses offer rewards for progress and are great for self-disciplined types or those dipping in for help with a specific problem.

Beyond pure programming, app development offers a more social environment for girls attracted to tech by the idea they can solve real-world problems. Cue AppsForGood with its head office in London and Technovation in San Francisco, both offering good established app development courses. Both are offered free to teachers working in schools, clubs or after-school programs.

‘The process of building an app gives girls a purpose and lets them see coding as a creative tool,’ says Debbie Forster, Co-CEO of AppsForGood, now five years old and used in over 700 schools in the UK. ‘We really stress creation and collaboration, based on the idea of putting students in the centre.’

So far, over 50,000 students from ages 8 to 18 have taken part in the AppsForGood education movement that encourages them to create apps around problems or issues they care about. Purpose and choice are at the heart of the program which, Forster says, really makes a difference for girls who make up 50% of the students, either on girl-only or in mixed teams. ‘Girls can tap into their passion,’ she explains. ‘That can be fashion, environment, child care, or sexual identity… anything that is important to them.’

At the core of both programs is collaboration and allowing the students to fail, which, says Forster, reflects tech start-up culture, very much about failure and early pivots. ‘We have 1,000 volunteers so the collaboration is not just collaboration with peers but also with the real world,’ says Forster. ‘The volunteers share how they have failed and the problems they encountered. Girls are not afraid of computing when it is collaborative – and by working in a team, there is less of an issue of fear of failure.’

Because building apps is about creating a product with real purpose, the process offers experience in enterprise, design and product prototyping which means girls with any – or no – amount of coding experience can be a valuable member of the team.

‘The good thing about Technovation is you don’t need to know any coding to get involved,’ says Allison Holmes, Events and Engagement Director. ‘Girls on the team might discover they are more into the business planning, the finance or the market research side, or creating the pitch video. They don’t all need to be coding the app.’

Technovation’s global entrepreneurship program and competition for girls aged 10 to 18 is a 50-hour curriculum split into 12 classes. Technovation’s challenge requires the teams to address a problem in their community. The winning apps from 2015 tackled childhood obesity, improper waste disposal, drunk driving and the conscious use of water. Teams of three to five girls work together with teachers and technology professionals to imagine, design, and develop a mobile app and business plan to address a need within their community. They then pitch their ‘startup’ business to judges. 2,500 girls took part in the 2015 program: many more are expected in 2016 as a result of the video CodeGirl directed by award-winning filmmaker and documentarian Lesley Chilcott and released on Youtube in November.

The rewards go beyond being part of a full program and international movement. Girls who take part gain confidence, presentation skills, the satisfaction of seeing an idea through to completion – and a better idea of what a tech company is about. ‘It was not until I participated in the app designing contest that I began to really value the thought, business strategy, and coding behind all of the games and websites that most people take for granted,’ says one participant.

What is clear is that the program produces exactly what tech needs – girls who have the confidence in their ability to run an entire tech project. ‘This program has helped me feel more confident in my abilities to actually run a technology start-up, from start to finish,’ says one girl in her feedback notes, while another says she was pleased how making an app really involved everyone on the team. ‘It’s not like anything we’ve ever done before – a project that can integrate and highlight the ideas and talents of every single person in the group. It’s a great experience!’

Best of all is the realisation that when it comes to making an app, you’re judged on the quality of the idea and product, as summed up by this teen from the 2015 Technovation Challenge. ‘When we release our app into the public, it won’t be did a boy create it, did a girl create it? It’s literally just a matter of can you see a problem in the community and can you find a way to use technology to defeat that problem.’

CodeGirl comes out November 1st-5th on Youtube and then in theaters and on VOD on November 6th.

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap