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Girls Who Code

Cracking the Code on Gender Diversity


In 2012, Rashma Saujani took a chance and entered the New York City congressional race. Coveted endorsements from NYC publications and television networks boosted her national profile. The pollsters called her crazy and said she stood no chance to win, but the amount of money raised by her campaign seemed to indicate otherwise.

Come election day, Saujani’s campaign took a huge loss receiving only 19% of the vote. The same publications that promoted her meteoric rise now called the spending by her campaign wasteful, given the outcome.

Said Saujani of her foray into politics, “I tell you the story of how I ran for Congress because I was 33 years old and it was the first time in my entire life that I had done something that was truly brave, where I didn’t worry about being perfect.”

Federal Deficits and Bravery Deficits

When considering what her attempt to enter politics had taught her, Saujani was reflective:

“Some people worry about our federal deficit, but I, I worry about our bravery deficit. Our economy, our society, we’re just losing out because we’re not raising our girls to be brave. The bravery deficit is why women are underrepresented in STEM, in c-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.”

The same year as her failed run for Congress, Saujani took a step to tackle the bravery deficit by establishing Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization aiming to support and increase the number of women in computer science by training and teaching young women the computing skills necessary to pursue 21st century opportunities. Per the Girls Who Code website, the organization “is on a mission to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.”

In Pursuit of Perfection

Through Girls Who Code, Saujani’s team has made an interesting discovery about basic psychological differences between men and women. Men will apply for open jobs if they meet only 60% of the listed qualifications, but women will apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. Said Saujani, “those 600,000 jobs that are open right now in computing and tech, women are being left behind, and it means our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave instead of socialized to be perfect.”

Coding is an endless process of trial and error, of trying to get the right command in the right place, with sometimes just a semicolon making the difference between success and failure. Code may break and fall apart, and it often takes many, many tries until what you’re building comes to life. It requires perseverance and imperfection. By teaching young women to code, Saujani found that she was socializing these young women to be brave.

The Girls Who Code instructors would frequently tell Saujani that when girls are learning how to code, a student will call the instructor over and say “I don’t know what code to write.” On her screen? A blank text editor. If the teacher presses ‘Undo’ a few times, she’ll see that the student didn’t spend the last 20 minutes staring at a blank screen, but that the student wrote code and then deleted it. She tried, came close, but didn’t get it exact. Instead of showing progress and attempts made, the student would rather show nothing at all to the instructors. These students are wired to be in pursuit of perfection or bust.

Creating a Difference with Coding

To date, the Girls Who Code program has served 185,000 girls. 50% of these young women come from historically underrepresented groups. In the program’s 2018 Annual Report, the college-aged alumni cohort was expected to grow to nearly 30,000 individuals, with those students majoring in computer science-related fields at nearly 15 to 16 times the national rate. Their partner organizations range from Twitter to Facebook to Adobe to IBM to Microsoft to Pixar to Disney.

As Reshma Saujani explained, “when we teach girls to be imperfect, and we help them leverage it, we will build a movement of young women who are brave and who will build a better world for themselves and for each and every one of us.”

This article was written using Reshma Saujani’s TED2016 talk titled “Teach girls bravery, not perfection.” In order to view this TED talk in its entirety, click here.

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