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Empowering Girls Through Coding: A Q&A with Reshma Saujani

The founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code addresses the gender gap in tech—and the importance of raising girls who dare.

Reshma Saujani knows from experience that taking big risks can reap unexpected rewards. A graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and Yale Law School, she began her career as an attorney and ran for Congress in 2010. She lost the race but went on to write her first book, Women Who Don't Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). It encourages women to take risks and chart their own course professionally and personally.

Her bid for Congress led Saujani to a new passion: helping to correct the gender imbalance in tech jobs. Throughout her campaign, Saujani visited many high schools and discovered that boys were eagerly learning about computer coding, both for fun and to prepare for future careers, but girls weren't joining the pursuit. Determined to change that, Saujani founded Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization that organizes after-school clubs and a free summer immersion program to teach girls to code and expose them to tech jobs. More than 40,000 young women across the country have participated in the group's programs. Saujani's new book, Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World (Viking, 2017), which will be published this month, is aimed at girls ages 10 to 17.

Why did you write Girls Who Code?

Everywhere I go, I meet parents who ask me how their daughter can learn to code. I got the idea for a book series after looking for—and failing to find—any existing volumes designed to teach girls this important skill. I wanted to reach as many young women as possible and change the cultural perception of what a programmer looks like and does. So, we're releasing a 13-book series with Penguin as an invitation for girls everywhere to learn to code and change the world, starting with Girls Who Code.

Why focus on coding to empower girls and not on all science and engineering fields?

Computing jobs are the new American dream, and girls are being left behind. Today, there are 500,000 open positions in computing, and demand is growing at three times the national average for other occupations. These are the most highly compensated jobs in the country, paying twice as much as the average role in the private sector.

But women are missing out on these opportunities. In 1995, they made up almost 40 percent of the computing workforce. Today, it's less than 25 percent. That will decline even more without interventions that specifically address gender. 

Why has the percentage of female computer science graduates declined since the 1980s?

It has to do with culture. At Girls Who Code, we always say, "You can't be what you cannot see." And young women today don't see many coders who look like them. It wasn't always like this. In the 1980s, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women. In fact, Steve Jobs' original Macintosh team had more women than most tech companies do today. What changed? The early personal computers were marketed to boys. That male-centered narrative got picked up in movies like "Revenge of the Nerds" and continues today in TV shows such as "Silicon Valley." Girls see this image of a programmer as a man and think the role isn't for them.

Similarly, in the 1970s, less than 10 percent of women were doctors and lawyers. Now that figure is 40 percent. The impact of television shows like "ER," "Grey's Anatomy" and "L.A. Law" cannot be overstated. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I saw Kelly McGillis in "The Accused." We need to change pop culture and the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

How can HR help close the gender gap in tech companies?

Create and meet diversity targets. HR plays a huge role in providing the structure and road map for doing that. We also know that there's a problem retaining and promoting women in the workforce, and HR needs to help create company cultures that support female engineers.

You ran for Congress and lost. What did you learn from that experience?

A lot. Losing the race is why I started Girls Who Code. On the campaign trail, I visited schools and witnessed armies of boys learning to code—training to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs—but there were no girls to be seen. In fact, girls' interest in coding declines dramatically in middle and high school, at the same time that boys' interest grows. My experience opened my eyes to the gender gap in tech, which I believe is one of our country's most important issues.

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You encourage women to take risks and embrace failure. Why is that important? 

We're raising our boys to be brave, while teaching girls to avoid failure and risk. Boys are taught to play rough and aim high. By the time they became adults, they're in the habit of taking risks—whether they're negotiating a raise or asking someone out on a date—and they're typically rewarded for doing so. It's often said in Silicon Valley that no one even takes you seriously unless you've had two failed startups.

Our economy—our society—is losing out because we're not raising our girls to be brave. That's the main reason women are underrepresented in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], in C-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress and pretty much everywhere you look.

Your parents are of Indian descent. What did you learn from your upbringing as the daughter of immigrants?

The immigrant mentality is to work hard, be brave and never give up—regardless of the outcome. Bravery and persistence are what led me to keep applying to Yale Law School after receiving three rejections. They allowed me to keep going after my losing race for Congress and another bid for public office in 2013, this time for public advocate of New York City. And they are what ultimately led me to start Girls Who Code and do a TED Talk on the topic.

Are you optimistic about future opportunities for women in technical fields?

I am. We're seeing encouraging early signs. Dartmouth University graduated more female than male engineers this year. Additionally, research that we did with the consulting firm Accenture shows that we can triple the number of women in computing and grow their share of tech jobs from 24 percent today to 39 percent by 2025 if we can spark and sustain girls' interest from middle school into the workforce. Our programs do just that. We're trying to build the biggest pipeline of female computer scientists to help more women enter and stay in computing.

Joan Mooney is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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