Why we should teach young girls to code

Credit: Mimi Thian

My daughter started learning computer coding the other day. She’s six.

Yes, I know, we are insufferably smug parents. But there’s another reason why we sat her down in front of a laptop.

And it’s not because supermodel Karlie Kloss has just announced that she’s planning to open her own summer camp for girl coders, called ‘Kode With Klossy‘ – although Klossy and I do seem to be on the same page when it comes to the benefits of girls learning to code.

Like it or not, computer coding is going to be part of everyone’s future. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said, digital literacy – including coding – is as important as other kinds of literacy.

We need to get beyond the stereotype that the only people who are good at computer coding are guys with questionable hygiene.

Unless we take deliberate steps to teach girls to code, digital literacy will continue to be the domain of men and boys. Coding skills will become yet another barrier to true gender equality, further widening the pay gap, the superannuation crisis, and the poor representation of women in executive-level positions.

Here’s five reasons why you should encourage your daughter to learn how to code.

1. Jobs, jobs, jobs

Given current trends, it’s likely that whatever field your daughter goes into, she will be using a computer. And it won’t be to use Microsoft Office and Facebook.

Even non-coding jobs will increasingly be augmented by computer skills. If people don’t have an understanding of how computers work, they’ll likely have limited career prospects.

2. It’s empowering

Women excel at listening, soft furnishings and finding lost socks. Men are better at everything else. That is pretty much the message that girls grow up with. Even in traditionally female domains like breastfeeding and mothering, we’re supposed to heed the advice of experts (read: men) who know best.

Coding, and technology more generally, is one more domain where girls grow up believing that boys are better than them. Even a supposedly “empowering” story like Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer concluded with Barbie needing help from boys to code for her.

Coding is a practical skill that girls can develop to prove their competency to themselves and the rest of the world that doubts them because of their gender.

3. It’s a form of self-expression

As the YouTube clips of Microsoft execs boogying at the Windows 95 launch demonstrates, coding and self-expression are not natural bedfellows. Surely the kind of self-expression practiced by Bill Gates and Steve Balmer should be discouraged from a young age.

But despite popular conceptions that coding is just about following rigid and pre-existing rules, it can be a form of creative self-expression. Good coders require a slate of complex abilities, including logic, problem solving, imagination, design sense and solid aesthetic judgment.

4. Women make better coders

New research shows that software repository GitHub approved code written by women at a higher rate than code written by men in all of the top 10 programming languages.

Many traits that are nurtured and rewarded in girls – such as communication skills, team work, multitasking, and a capacity for empathy – are critical in coding. Contrary to the mythology of the lone wolf sitting in his mum’s basement for weeks on end, most coding projects require working with other people. Coders need to listen, brainstorm, compromise, and collaborate.

And as software becomes more ubiquitous and pervasive, women need to make sure that the “solutions” that are devised reflect women’s interests and ideas. As Linda Liukas, a skilled programmer, says in The Telegraph: “Twentysomething-year-old boys are solving their problems with dating or meeting friends, but there are different problems in the world.”

5. Coding is compatible with having a family

One of the biggest problems facing women with children is the shortage of meaningful, well-paid, part-time work. Full-time work is often the only option.

At the same time, mothers are still expected to shoulder an unfair burden of domestic work and childcare.

Given the projected skill shortage and the fact that programming can be done pretty much anywhere and anytime, coding might provide more opportunities for women to find flexible, high-status, and skilled work.

If I’ve managed to convince you to get your daughters coding, here’s how to do it.

There are websites and tools that teach the basics of computational thinking. Most are visual, providing immediate feedback to budding programmers. And rather than relying on typing screens and screens of code, they utilise pre-built code blocks that can fit together like puzzle pieces.

Best of all, many of these are free, such as Scratch, which was created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach programming concepts to children aged six and up, and for older children, Alice, which uses 3D graphics and animation to teach students core programming principles.

These courses are a gateway to get children interested in coding and lay the foundations for learning more sophisticated programming and languages.

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