Girl Coders: Inspiring and supporting females in computer science
Written by Mazy Leung, Education Specialist, Digital Development at Let’s Talk Science
Imagine walking into your first Computer Science class, looking around and noticing that you are the only girl in a room full of boys. You also quickly realize that the boys either pretend you are not there or talk right over you. That was the experience of Serena Sang, who is now a Grade 11 student at Victoria Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto. Instead of accepting the status quo, Serena founded a girls coding club with support from Ms. Shirley Xie, a computer science teacher at her school. I had a chance to speak to Serena and Ms. Xie about their experiences as females in the male dominating world of computer science. Serena spoke about the challenges she faced, but also about the supportive environment she established for herself and the members of her coding club.
What motivated you to start a girls coding club?
(Serena): I was actually never interested in computer science before high school. I had to choose between Computer Science or Civics and Careers while deciding on my Grade 9 courses. I didn’t want to spend a whole semester on Civics and Careers because I thought it would be rather uninteresting. It was alarming to notice the gender discrepancy that is not prevalent in other courses. It was more challenging to take the (Computer Science) course because I felt like an “Other.” So, I created GWC (Girls Who Code) because I want to foster a community within Victoria Park, and I hope that I could inspire other girls at my school to code.
(Ms. Xie): I had similar feelings as an undergrad student majoring in computer science, years ago. Very few young women were in my program as well, one course had six female students out of a total of 70 students.
What are the challenges or barriers of being a female coder? Were you able to overcome these challenges?
(Serena): It was emotionally and mentally draining to feel like I didn’t belong somewhere. I overcame this challenge by creating a club just for girls, and I found other coders who share the same interests as me! Another challenge is that I wasn’t taken seriously. In GWC, there have been some people who would invade our server and be disrespectful. I know it is inevitable -- especially in a male-dominated field -- that some people would be disrespectful, so I try to talk with those people privately. It’s a very competitive environment, where the attitude is if you are struggling then it’s not for you. I believe that if there were more girls and women in coding - and there are more boys and men who are better allies. It would be easier for other women and girls to approach this field if they know they have a safe community.
What is the format for your club? How did you establish this safe environment for yourself and the girls in your coding club?
(Serena): It is an after-school club that meets twice a week. We rotate between regular learning sessions (Java and Python workshops) and Android App development. Girls who are new to coding have a supportive environment to learn the basics and complete practice problems, then we brainstorm and collaborate on the design process for app development. We are currently building a word game, but next year, maybe we can build one with a more global context. It is important for girls not to feel intimidated and they don’t need to be scared to ask questions.
There’s a surprising social aspect that came out of this club, as the pandemic had been very isolating for everyone. I became closer with some of my friends through hours of debugging code together - working as a team to find and resolve errors in a program. Usually, I despise debugging because it can be extremely frustrating for me. However, if I am debugging with a friend, it’s less irritating because I know that someone is there to help and support me, and we can make jokes along the way.
What STEM skills have you acquired from coding with other girls? How might these skills help you in other areas of your life?
(Serena): I believe that through GWC, my critical thinking skills have improved because I, along with the other executives, need to reflect on how we code and try to teach it in a digestible manner. We need to observe what might be the more challenging aspects of a certain topic and communicate them in a way that everyone can understand. I instinctively try to express my ideas and/or findings in a comprehensible way.
What technical requirements are needed? Is it costly to start coding?
(Serena): All you need is wifi and a laptop to get started!
(Ms. Xie): Schools advertise their clubs at the start of the school year, look out for these opportunities. Information on school clubs can be found on school websites.
If I was a girl interested in coding, where would I start? How can parents support this interest?
(Serena): I think it depends on your age. If you’re younger and in elementary school, I recommend looking into block coding programs like Scratch to have a strong foundation for computational thinking. If you’re older, I recommend finding a project that you’re passionate about. For example, if you want to share your knowledge about a certain topic, you could create a website. You can do some research about what (computer) languages the project would require. Then, I recommend watching YouTube videos or following online lessons. Parents can help their children by being supportive and encouraging! But don’t get too pushy!
(Ms. Xie):There are now more resources and opportunities for girls who are interested in computer science. Contests and competitions that are designed to encourage females to join this field. Be encouraging but don’t compare your child against another - that can easily backfire!
Check out some additional resources to help get your kids engaged in computer science.
 No affiliation with Girls Who Code non-profit organization