Reshma Saujani: How to Get Girls into Tech

In 2010 Reshma Saujani was the first Indian American to run for Congress. She lost but, while visiting schools during the campaign, won an understanding of just how wide the gender gap is in software engineering. To remedy the situation she founded Girls Who Code, an organization that runs after school and summer programs to fix that imbalance by teaching girls to code. And the programs are working: Graduates are 15 times more likely to major in computer science than the average American girl. Saujani is also the author of Girls Who Code, now a 13-book series aimed at young adults. In her newest book, Brave, Not Perfect, which hit the shelves this February, she takes on the fear of failure that many girls face. Here we talk to her about her inspirations and her own relationship to STEM.
Q: When you were campaigning in 2010, was there a single moment where you knew what you had to do to tackle the dearth of girls who code?
R.S: Imagine walking into a computer science classroom, and realizing that nobody looks like you? That’s what happens to countless girls across the country. It’s intimidating! They feel like they don’t belong, and may even be told as much. I saw it firsthand on the campaign trail—every computer science classroom I walked into was full of boys. The girls were nowhere to be found. I guess you could say there were more than a few aha moments! I knew we had to create gender-specific spaces so that girls could focus on learning to code, not on questioning whether or not they belong.
Q: Both your parents were engineers. Did that have anything to do with the path you are on?
R.S: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be an activist, and that I wanted to be in politics and change the world. That’s probably because I grew up going to the library with my dad every weekend and checking out books about incredible women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Helen Keller, and Coretta Scott King. If I’d known that I could change the world with computer science, or if I’d been brave enough to try, it’s possible I would have ended up a technologist! And if I’d been able to see women in tech changing the world who looked like me, too, it would have been even more impactful. That’s why I work so hard to make sure that girls in our Girls Who Code programs are seeing women who code, of all colors and backgrounds.
Q: Can you point to any specific inspirational moments you’ve experienced with the Girls Who Code program?
R.S: There are too many to count!! We’ve reached over 90,000 girls across the country and we’re now starting to go international. Every day I hear from or hear about one of our alumni who are doing incredible work—making a difference in their communities using computer science. These girls are coding applications to solve for climate change, to support immigrants, to prevent bullying. We always say, teach a girl to code and she’ll change the world. And it’s true.
Q: Do you ever wish you had gone into coding, engineering, or the sciences yourself?
R.S: If I hadn’t gone to law school and then tried to go into politics, I might never have noticed the gender gap in tech when I did. I might never have founded Girls Who Code and created this movement. Right now, I’m happy to learn coding alongside the girls in my program and grateful for the paths that led me to where I am today!
Q: How is bravery important to learning how to code?
R.S: Coding and bravery go hand in hand! Coding, at its core, is about trial and error. It’s about failing and starting over again. It’s hard. And too often, we encourage our girls to do only what they are good at, to only take the classes they know they will get A’s in. That has to change—by teaching girls to code and encouraging them to embrace the failure that comes with it. That’s how we start to create a bravery revolution.
Q: Do you have any plans to similarly boost girls interested in engineering?
R.S: Girls Who Code is working to close the gender gap in technology. And we are well on our way: At our current rate, we will close the gender gap in entry level tech jobs by 2027. Some of our girls do go into engineering, or design, or information sciences—the key is to get them interested in the field of technology early on so they might consider it as an option when they might not have before.
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.
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