To avoid perpetuating the tech industry’s glaring gender gap, schools should look more closely at these grass-roots initiatives that have had success in attracting and inspiring girls. One X factor seems to be the presence of female role models, which can be hard to come by when you’re one of the only girls in your computer science class. Girls know the stereotype of a geeky guy hacker in his basement all too well, and interacting with women who use computer science in their professional lives gives them an idea of something to go after besides an endless string of code. Many of the instructors, coding evangelists and students I spoke with credited a female mentor who nudged them along.
Rebecca Feldman, a seventh grader from Queens, had a discouraging experience in a robotics after-school program. “I was one of two girls in the class,” she said. “We kind of had to fend for ourselves.” Then her parents heard about CoderDojo, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching kids to code free of charge.
CoderDojo NYC, which has a 50/50 split of girls and boys and is ethnically diverse, was co-founded by Rebecca Garcia, a 23-year-old programmer who gravitated toward coding through an early obsession with NeoPets, an online game popular with girls that lets players customize their pet shops using the languages HTML and CSS.
Rebecca Feldman was mentored by Ms. Garcia — “a cool adult I could go to for help” — and became known as Little Rebecca. One of her projects is a website about tomboys. “Her parents told me she had never heard of computer science before,” Ms. Garcia recalled. But after the very first session, she told her parents, “I really like this. Is this something you can do for a living?”