In part one of this blog series, we briefly looked at the history of women in technology, and some things that might have contributed to the continuing lack of women in technology today. So where does GIRLSmarts fit into all this? We’ve already got programs for women in technology, university collaborations, etc., is there really a need for programs at primary school level? And how many children that young are really thinking about careers anyway?

Redraw the Balance visited primary schools in the UK, and asked children between 5-7 to draw a fire fighter, a surgeon, and an RAF pilot. Of 66 pictures, just 5 were drawn as female – and 3 of those 5 were by the same girl!

It may surprise you to learn that some studies have shown that girls as young as 11 believe that engineering is not for them, not because they’re not interested (in fact, girls and boys equal interest levels when younger), but because they think they are not able. A recent campaign called Redraw The Balance showed children as young as 5 already overwhelmingly believed that certain jobs were done by men as the default.

As a woman who absolutely loves everything about technology, this made me incredibly sad, so when one of our managers came back to the Dublin office talking about the GIRLSmarts program he’d heard about in Vancouver, I was really excited at the opportunity to change some young minds.

GIRLSmarts was co-created with U.B.C. and SAP Vancouver. It’s a program aimed at getting, and keeping, young girls interested in technology. And with a lot of planning, and some excellent resources, ideas, and help from our Vancouver colleagues, we hatched a plan, and 2 days, 56 girls, and a million marshmallows later, we had run our first GIRLSmarts events!

At 11, a lot of children might not be thinking specifically about careers, so unlike a university or intern style program, the focus was on fun, and some great messages that might stick with the girls and encourage them to explore technology beyond their experience at SAP.

 

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We started the day with the Spaghetti & Marshmallow challenge – each group of girls got a bowl full of marshmallows and a handful of spaghetti. Their mission? Build the tallest tower possible, but it has to stand up on its own! We watched the girls go from “quiet best behaviour” to giggling, chatting, and building like crazy – a trend that we tried to continue through the day!

During the events, we tried to show the girls some female role models – women working in a variety of careers here at SAP introduced each section of the day, talked about their job and their interests, and why they thought technology was cool. Of course, we taught them about coding, using a program called Scratch. In Scratch, you snap logical programming blocks together like pieces of Lego, and can see the results instantly, and it was amazing to see how excited the girls were to be able to make things happen on their screen. We were lucky enough to be able to demonstrate some cool technology, with a 3d printer demo that was a highlight for many girls, and really opened their eyes to how much we can achieve with technology. We taught the girls a little about design principles – how things happen iteratively, a little at a time, and that even if things aren’t perfect the first time, it’s just a step in the process. Last but not least, we encouraged the girls to be brave – at the end of both days, we brought in any interested SAP colleagues from around our floor, and the groups of girls stood up and presented their Scratch programs to their teachers, friends, and a room full of SAP people. Not an easy task, even as an adult, but the girls embraced it and took it in their stride.

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We set out to show the girls that technology is broad, fascinating, life-changing, and perhaps most importantly, that it is open to them. It was exhausting, awesome, and inspiring to see so many young girls excited to play with code, experience technology, and have a ton of fun.

At the end of each day, we asked the girls to tell us what they thought by writing on post-its and sticking them on the walls, and this message remains one of my favourites: “Considering doing this as a job”. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I had all year, and I can’t wait to do it all over again.

I could talk (or write!) about this topic for days, but it’s a lot of information to take in, so I’ll finish up by highlighting just a few things that I hope you’ll take away from this. If you can only remember these points, I will be as delighted as I was when I read that post-it.

  • Learn – there’s a wealth of information on gender diversity in computer science, and how diversity in the workplace benefits everyone. Nothing I’ve written about here is hard to find, and the one of the best ways you can convince someone is to learn all you can and arm yourself with facts
  • Encourage – sometimes a spark of interest can die out, if it’s not nurtured. Nurture it. Encourage curiosity in science and technology where you find it.
  • Volunteer – run GIRLSmarts, run CoderDojo, or whatever other local code program you’ve got. Be a role model for the diversity we want to see.
  • Play! – Toys are toys, and they are for everyone. Science isn’t just a boy’s toy! In short, if we keep putting all the science and engineering toys in boys section, we will still be standing here in years to come, wondering where all the women are.

When boys and girls have equal access to education, and equal opportunities to choose, they show the same levels of interest in science and technology. It’s us, our homes and our society which shapes their hopes and dreams. Let’s do our best to shape them well.

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