When 17-year-old Aissatou Toure put her impressive tech skills to use, the coding newcomer decided to focus on an age-old problem: The gender wage gap, which she and four other teen girls tackled with a Pac-Man-like video game called “Wage Rage.”
“We made a game that has a female player who collect coins, and tries to avoid discouraging men,” says Aissatou. “We were always passionate about the idea.”
The player has a little bar that’s at 79 percent — how much the average full-time female work earns for every dollar a man makes — and collects enough coins to reach one dollar. When a player wins, a “You’ve filled the wage gap!” message pops up.
Aissatou is one of 19 rising high school juniors and seniors who participated in this year’s Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program in New York, run in partnership with the consulting firm Accenture. The summer program, which also has cohorts in Chicago and Atlanta, is designed to inspire more young women to pursue careers in computing and engineering.
In a male-dominated field with a reputation for macho, popped collar-wearing “brogrammers,” young women aren’t always encouraged to enter computer science or engineering.
In part, that’s why the summer program teaches girls more than just coding fundamentals. Powerful women in tech serve as guest speakers, and girls leave knowing fundamental interviewing and speaking skills.
“Ultimately, they gained confidence and the bravery to go out there and say ‘I can do it,’ and I can do it just as well as a man can, whether it’s computer science or some other field,” says Tricia Barlow, Accenture’s Girls Who Code partnership program manager.
Even when girls do major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields in college, they face challenges when they try to enter the professional word, says Barlow, who majored in computer science nearly two decades ago. Sadly, not much has changed since then.
“In the workplace it was a little bit awkward, because I just didn’t have the ability to have the same personal relationships,” she says.
The numbers are sobering: Thought by 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields and US graduates are on track to fill 29 percent of of those positions, women are on track to fill just 3 percent.
However, Girls Who Code is on track to level the playing field. It recently launched a #HireMe campaign, which helps build a pipeline for women majoring in high-tech fields. Today, nearly twenty companies (including Accenture) have signed on to commit to giving more women jobs post-graduation.
Girls Who Code has come a long way since it began 2012, when founder Reshma Saujani witnessed the gender gap firsthand in computer science classrooms during her run for Congress (she was the first Indian-American woman to do so).
Saujani was inspired give more girls opportunities to learn to code; today nearly 10,000 girls have that chance each year during summer immersion programs, and in afterschool clubs held at schools, libraries and universities during the academic year.
This sense of empowerment is reflected in the immersion students’ final projects, many of which addressed social issues that the students felt personally affected by. One game showcased the struggles of applying to college, while sixteen-year-old Mildred Nyarko, another New York program participant, analyzed the portrayal of women in the media and created a website that taught young girls about feminism and body empowerment.
Though she’d taken coding at school, Mildred says she was one of the only girls in her class, and she hardly participated at all. But this summer, all that changed, and she hopes to one day pursue a career in computer science.
Says Mildred, “Before this, I didn’t have my life planned.”