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Girl code, teen code

Getting more young girls interested in studying technology might seem an uphill battle, but these organisations are making headway.

Girl code, teen code

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution gains momentum and opportunities in the tech sector are growing by leaps and bounds, it is bizarre that fewer women are getting into the industry. In 1995, 37 per cent of computer scientists were women – today, that number has dropped to 24 per cent.

“If we do nothing, in 10 years the number of women in computing will decrease to just 22%,” states Girls Who Code, girlswhocode.com, an organisation that teaches girls skills like programming and robotics, sparking a worldwide drive to get more women into tech sciences.

Reshma Saujani. Photo from Girls Who Code

American lawyer and politician Reshma Saujani founded the organisation in 2012, when she noticed very few or no girls in computer science classes she encountered on her campaign route while running for US Congress. Girls Who Code has since taught 185 000 girls computing skills, thousands of whom went on to major in computer sciences at university.

Point of light
On local shores, Lindiwe Matlali took on the mammoth task in a similar way in 2014 when she founded Africa Teen Geeks, africateengeeks.co.za. The organisation doesn’t focus on girls only, and to date has taught 50 000 children and unemployed youth computer science skills, even hosting hackathons in Nigeria, Bolivia, Indonesia and Silicon Valley in the USA. Africa Teen Geeks recently partnered with the Department of Basic Education to develop and implement a robotics and coding curriculum for Grade R-9 learners. In February this year her work was recognised by the Queen of England, who made Lindiwe the recipient of the 86th Commonwealth Point of Light award.

Lindiwe Matlali

Lindiwe Matlali. Photo by Bobby Guliani

On receiving the award, Lindiwe said: “I’m excited and humbled to be awarded the Point of Light. Africa Teen Geeks is a passion project; I often say that I have two jobs – one that pays the bills and one that feeds my soul. Africa Teen Geeks not only gives the children the opportunity to learn new skills, but also allows us to raise their aspirations, to dream bigger and do more.”

Lindiwe says South Africa faces many additional challenges over and above getting more women into tech. “Only 10 per cent of our schools teach IT, and access to opportunities are few. And, of course, lack of connectivity perpetuated by the high cost of data remains a challenge – even when free online coding courses abound.

“At the same time, there’s a huge investment drive in tech in Africa, with global companies such as Google, Microsoft and IBM investing millions of dollars in building research centres on the continent. Africa is the only continent that still has a lot of growth potential in the industry, and a very young population that could take on the challenge. Preparing African youth for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is critical.”

Dreams realised
For Lindiwe, founding Africa Teen Geeks is a personal dream, since her own story played out in much the same way. As an orphan raised by her grandfather, who was a pensioner and gardener, she was taught that education was her ticket out of poverty. And it was – driven to make him proud, Lindiwe went on to study at Stanford and Columbia in the US.

She believes the best way to get more women to enter the tech world is, quite simply, for parents to encourage their daughters. “The biggest challenge in getting more girls in tech is that the industry is perceived as a man’s world. Girls interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are still deemed to have a ‘male brain’. Research shows only 19 per cent of senior tech positions are held by women – and only 3 per cent by women of colour. What better role models do girls need than their parents – people they already adore?”