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If Google Wants to Get Girls into Coding, It Needs to Think Beyond Pink and Purple

a 3-d printed bracelet says "code brooklyn"

 

In June, Google revealed that its next innovation needs to be a way to promote gender equity: women hold only 17 percent of the company’s technology positions. According to Google, the statistics were released with the hopes of recruiting and developing “the world’s most talented and diverse people.”

Last week, Google announced that it will invest $50 million  over three years into Made with Code, a program that aims to motivate young women to learn about code. Made with Code has a great range of lead contributors and nonprofit partners, including Girl Scouts of America, Mozilla Webmaker, Black Girls Code, and the MIT Media Lab. The concept is engaging and it’s necessary: to create a community of mentors and makers for young women interested in tech, plus launch interactive projects that will get girls interested in coding. Women only make up 12 percent of computer science majors, and as a leading tech company, Google hopes to change this dynamic by targeting women when they’re young.

google's diversity stats

Each mentor video—which feature women who work in a range of professions, including dance, filmmaking, and music—finishes with the phrase “Things You Love are Made with Code” and the iconic Google logo. Not having mentors or female role models to look up to is thought to be a reason why girls do not pursue computer science fields.  “Being able to write code is like being able to write your own story in technology,” says Made with Code mentor Limor Fried, owner of electronic hobbyist group Adafruit Industries, in her mentor video on the new website. “The reward is when you’ve built something that nobody else has built before.”

The messages of confidence and creativity sprinkled throughout the videos can inspire girls interested in coding. However, the new Made with Code program is not one-size-fits-all.

After sampling the projects and exploring the program, I think there is something to be desired underneath the site's pink and purple backdrop. Though the website says it has more projects on the way, Made with Code currently allows young women to play with five projects—Accessorizer, Gif, Bracelet, Beats, and Avatar—but the “coding” is simply dragging boxes to indicated areas and changing the placement area on the grid.  Accessorizer, for example, is a way for users to decorate uploaded selfies with graphics. Gif lets people create four frame animations on a grid with cartoon characters adorned with big eyelashes. The Bracelet project lets anyone make a free 3-D printed bracelet. The seven step process only takes a few minutes: users design the text for a bracelet and the design is sent to a 3-D printer, then Google will mail the printed bracelets to the person who designed it. It's a fun idea, but the actually technology is never seen—there's no picture of a 3-D printer or explanation of how it works. All in all, the proejcts are simple and good for young kids, but I’m wondering when the real programming is going to begin.

While the program has great intentions and many components of the site shine—such as its Events and Resources pages, which include links to more challenging coding projects—the site's gender standards overpower areas where Google could show how multi-faceted girl coders can be. Not every girl loves accessorizing with bracelets, decorating selfies, or creating cutsie images of unicorns. Girls also like games, outer space, sports, sci-fi, and challenges. Girls like more colors than just pink and purple, which adorn each page of the website.

“If girls are inspired to see that Computer Science can make the world more beautiful, more usable, more safe, more kind, more innovative, more healthy, and more funny, then hopefully they’ll begin to contribute their essential voices,” reads the About statement on the Made with Code website. 

This statement along with examples in the mentor videos and colors solidify the idea that girls must still be soft, nurturing, kind, and cute while coding, keeping girls in a separate gender box. The new Made with Code program is reminiscent of the Lego Friends collection, created with the idea that girls learn to construct differently. While Made with Code can generate interest for building and creativity within girls, the program needs to move away from rigid ideas of feminine girlhood in order to truly be successful. Made with Code must emphasize the possibilities for leadership and difference making and not just “dreaming” and “beauty-making.”

A scene on the Resources page of Made With Code, which encourages girls to host a "code party."

However, some of the videos on Made with Code do challenge the stereotypes of girls’ interests. One mentor video features Tesca Fitzgerald, a 17-year-old student in a Georgia Institute of Technology PhD program who is studying robot interaction and cognitive science. She explains how thrilling it can be to work on computers and planning a design using code. Women hold only 27 percent of computer science positions. Having Fitzgerald as a mentor can allow girls to see they can become leaders in the field of robots and electric design and not just use coding soley in careers they are told to pursue because of their gender, such as dance or fashion.

As it grows, I hope Made with Code begins including games and lessons in a way that takes a cue from Codeacademy and Made with Code sponsor Code.org. Codeacademy uses a systems of lessons that build upon themselves to teach different coding languages, such as HTML, Python, and Javascript. The lessons are more challenging than Made with Code drag-and-place projects and advancing to the next level and seeing code work is rewarding. Code.org offers a plethora of tutorials for all ages along with resources for educators who want to share a love for programming. Made with Code is also sponsored by great products that teach innovation, such as LittleBits, which allows creators to build space rovers and synthesizers of all colors. With more adventure, inclusive colors, and less emphasis on being traditionally girly, Made with Code could really push the boundaries that reinforce gender divisions.

What is most important is that a tremendous effort is going into addressing the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math careers by a company so influential as Google. Technology is interwoven into every part of our lives and girls should know every kind of impact they could make. Made with Code can effectively reveal the possibilities of technology to young women, but Google must take into account that young women have a wider range of interests than just pink and purple.

Related Reading: An Epic Feminist Edit-a-Thon takes Aim at Wikipedia's Gender Gap.

Lucy Vernasco is the new media intern at Bitch. She made this article with code. 


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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Scratch and App Inventor

There has been a lot of talk about getting kids -- especially girls -- introduced to the concepts behind coding, and even coding itself. I found a fun, free website that does just that. I could totally see my parents telling me as a kid that I couldn't play with it until all my chores were done.

Scratch is an MIT project specifically designed to help kids ages 8 - 16 learn to code. It can be used to develop animations, interactive stories, and games through drag-and-drop code blocks. There's a huge gallery of objects you can use or customize. And with the vast array of methods available, you can make them do just about anything. Although the kids' projects can't be turned into mobile apps themselves, they can be saved and shared on the site. And because it is aimed at kids in general, not just girls, it avoids the "shrink it and pink it" offensiveness of a lot of things geared at getting girls involved in things that are often viewed as 'boy things'.

And for us grown-ups who want to learn to code, but are leery of playing with something aimed at kids, there are other resources that are also free.  Everyone knows about Codecademy, edX, Udacity, Khan Academy and Saylor.org. And those are really neat resources (I have played with all of them, actually, and had good experiences across the board). But if you find the courses there boring or too advanced -- or if you'd rather learn by just playing with things and seeing what happens, App Inventor seems to be the best platform. 

It works like Scratch does with drag-and-drop coding blocks. However, it includes every method, function, and other coding element you might use to create an Android app — for good reason. After playing with the program, you end up with an actual Android app.  And for those of us who get stuck sometimes, App Inventor even has video tutorials and reference guides to help users when they get stuck

just curious

Great piece Lucy. Just curious. Are you getting paid at Bitch, or is it unpaid?

Hostile environment

I don't see how grooming girls to code will give them success in the workplace. The culture of coding is the problem. It's a hostile environment for women and without having a group of full grown women in the mix to mentor both newbie girls and elder-statesmen males will continue to drive out the women with open discrimination. I swear, if Google wants to hire more women they should take from the existing pool of coders who have uteruses.

Coding women: why they are invisible in tech companies

I am a woman in IT (stop calling young women girls, that's demeaning) and I have been coding for 20 years. I worked 5 years during the rise of a startup to tech giant and witnessed the problems myself: The male geek culture of the tech industry scares away brilliant women from working in that industry. That is also valid for women who already work in tech and have remarkable skills.

Long hours into the night and social obligations incompatible with family duties are only one of a dozen issues which need to be addressed. I had to plan my kids years ahead to stay in my job (leading a tech Research Department and teaching Tech at Uni). You will often see that women in tech get less support in training, get paid way less than their equally qualified male peers, will get fired once they tie the knot / have a baby.

The tech culture does not discriminate women only, it discriminates everything and everyone who is not white, male, super brilliant and 20-30 years old. As a woman you can try to be a good sport and "one of the boys" or get sidelined. With kids this gets ever more difficult: meeting with the boys over Pizza and coding into the night on a whim, going on a field trip where you do a sports camp with 20 testosterone driven guys: not my idea of fun... So one could do the Spa trip with the HR and Marketing women but miss the crucial decisions made while on the Dirt Bike event with the gents... Older men in IT very often have a very traditional wife, who is a homemaker, nurse or teacher. Seeing a woman as an intellectual peer is quite difficult for some of these guys. So the challenges are many. I today teach tech at a Uni and I have been mentoring girls (10-18) to join IT for 15 years now. Most of them who decided to study tech work at Pharma / Banking etc where diversity is addressed, family planning is possible and avoid the startup culture altogether.

Here some family compatible geeky after work activities for coder men and women: go to a convention and take your kids along, help your employees kids with science projects, paid leave for nursing sick kids, school on campus with the option to eat with parents in the canteen (works in Pharma and at Uni, so why not in tech?)

It's complicated

I completely agree with you. While getting kids into code early is an issue for sure, it's far more complicated than that. I wrote two blog posts on this very subject both in 2007 (one even shows Google's own exec. board by gender). If we are going to start taking this seriously and change anything, than we better start having a more sophisticated conversation about root causes.

Two posts:

In Need of a New Welcome Mat: http://leighhimel.blogspot.ca/2007/05/in-need-of-new-welcome-mat-women_1...
Gender + Technology stats (circa 2007 and yet nothing has changed) http://leighhimel.blogspot.ca/2007/05/in-need-of-new-welcome-mat-women_1...

thank you gender gap in computer tech

Thank you for posting. I read your comments and immediately went to the site you said was best. In high school they pushed us "lower" class female students downstairs to typing class. The upper class male students were put in computer classes with new computers upstairs. No wonder there is a damn gap! I had just as much interest as they did and I'm sure a lot of other girls in my generation did too-we're still trying to catch up. With earning less-we have less time/money for expensive computers and computer classes. I'm finding even today I need to know this stuff for everyday work. Thank you for helping.