Middle School: A Gateway for Girls in Tech
By Joy Baer
My first foray into the world of technology started in middle school. I was babysitting one night and after I put the kids to sleep I started playing around with the family’s Apple II, which had a text-based adventure game called Birth of the Phoenix. I enjoyed the problem-solving challenges in the game, and I started exploring the game, computers, and the technology around them further. One thing led to another and I was hooked. That simple game led me to where I am now — the president of an amazing ad tech software company with over 300 employees. Today, my team and I solve endless challenges and drive innovation in advertising, often reminding me of those late nights playing games in the early years of desktop computers.
Fast forward to the present where children are exposed to technology much earlier on in their lives. We see toddlers, mimicking their parents, with the ability to swipe on smartphones or open apps. And teenagers are extremely adept at adopting the newest technologies. But even with the enormous growth of tech in our everyday lives, there is still a disparity between the percentage of men and women entering and showing interest in jobs in engineering and technology. In 1984, 37% of computer science majors were women, but in 2014 that number dropped to 18%, according to a study conducted by Accenture and Girls Who Code. There is also a considerate gap between men and women studying engineering, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
While these issues are fairly well known, the means of addressing and solving them are more elusive.
I came across one possible and simple solution this past Saturday at a TechGirlz event we hosted at Strata’s headquarters in Chicago. We hosted a “Podcasting 101” workshop (one of the many formats available at TechShopz in a Box™) for a group of 6th, 7th and 8th grade girls. I marveled as their eyes lit up when they put big headphones over their ears and heard their own recorded voices through the computer. They were hooked and got very excited to mix and edit their own podcasts.
I credit a large portion of our event’s success to the fact that we hosted middle school girls who are still at a tender age and susceptible to a good impression. I have high school children and couldn’t imagine that workshop generating the same level of excitement in them.
I realized that in order to address the broader issue of the gender gap in coding and engineering, we need to expose girls to technology learning experiences at the right time. That means early exposure while they are young, which will provide girls with a gateway to exploring new technologies. The right start helps push them in the right direction, just like that first time I started exploring on that Apple II.
The Girls Who Code/Accenture study found evidence to support this idea. Of women working in computing, 74% were exposed to coding in middle school. In fact, the CEO of Girls Who Code said, “We want to overinvest in middle school.” The study suggested fun activities like computer games to get girls interested. From personal experience, I couldn’t agree more.