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Why Women (And Men) Should Learn To Code

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Did you know that the person who first proposed programming for an analytical machine, known today as computer programming, was a woman? Her name was Ada Byron Lovelace. In 1843, she articulated the concept that would lead to modern computer programming, and which would only be fully realized a century after her death.

Last week marked the 200th birthday of Lovelace. It also witnessed the Hour of Code, a global event where children and adults in more than 80 countries around the world attend facilitated workshops and tutorials to learn how to code. Within the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University, our Office of Outreach and the Department of Computer Science organized an Hour of Code event on campus.

As Dean of the Faculty of Science, I sent out a Dean's challenge to my fellow academic administrators to join me as I learned to code. We were joined by students and teachers from our local community in Toronto and by students, faculty and staff from our university community. So I completed my first Hour of Code and achieved a major life goal. Yes, I wrote code! Despite my initial anxieties, I found the atmosphere fun and supportive and worked steadily with increasing confidence. I also watched as those around me learned to code with the help of computer science students, who acted as peer mentors or who reverse-mentored those of us of a "certain age." My colleague Dorothy Byers, head of school at St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School, discovered that as a right-brained person it was possible to learn how to code and enjoy it as well.

Unfortunately, women remain underrepresented in the tech sector. Research shows that women make up only between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of tech-related jobs at tech companies. As Adriana Gascoigne, CEO and founder of Girls in Tech, explains, this gender gap starts at the university level. In 2000, nearly 28 per cent of women attending university were majoring in computer science or information sciences but a decade later that number dropped to 17.6 per cent.

Why should women and girls learn to code? Here are a few reasons.

Women are "naturals" at coding

Computer science pioneer and advocate for diversity Grace Hopper knew that women were "naturals" at computer programming," as she told Cosmopolitan magazine in 1967. To Hopper's point, research suggests that girls are better at making story-based computer games than boys. When researchers at the University of Sussex asked students at a secondary school to design and program their own computer game, they found that girls wrote more complex programs and learned more about coding than the boys. "Given that girls' attainment in literacy is higher than boys across all stages of the primary and secondary school curriculum, it may be that explicitly tying programming to an activity that they tend to do well in leads to a commensurate gain in their programming skills."

Coders are in demand

When women learn to code, they are gaining one of the most in-demand skills in the job market. A list prepared by LinkedIn shows that seven of the top 10 most in-demand skills have to do with programming or digital media. Mobile app development tops the list.

In Canada, a serious skills' gap in the technology sector is forecast to grow to 71,000 jobs by 2017, says IDC Canada. Learning to code is almost guaranteed to secure one a job.

Catch them when they're young

The stereotype about programming as something that nerdy boys do still lingers. Girls are not typically attracted to programming, especially in their teenage years when they're more concerned about building social capital and fitting in. Change may require that we teach girls coding when they're young, according to an article in the Guardian. "We need to start teaching digital literacy and coding as a part of the curriculum in year five, when most children's math is strong enough."

Many great organizations are supporting and encouraging young women to code, including Ladies Learning to Code, Girls Crack the Code and hEr VOLUTION in Toronto. More work by these groups and by educational institutions, including Ryerson's Faculty of Science, to support accessibility, diversity and inclusivity in coding, technology, science and other STEM-related disciplines will provide opportunities for young women and also contribute to our economic development. We should all learn to code.

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