Getting girls into coding — it’s all about the social

I’m a programmer, and I have a teenage daughter. It seems like a no-brainer that I could get her into coding, but is that really how it went down?

Izzy programming the Bit:Bot

Izzy has always been interested in computer activities. In Kindergarten she scored the class award for Computing, and (as parents) we smiled quietly to ourselves. In her primary school years she got heavily into Minecraft, and as she explored creating mechanisms with Redstone, we could see her interest in computer science ideas (debugging, building complex inter-dependent systems) growing.

We said to ourselves, ‘Job done!’

In Year 6, we arranged a private subscription to Grok Learning for her, because we knew the school was not yet involved, and we were confident we could assist her with the material. She showed some mild interest in the NCSS Challenge that year, but her reaction was largely the classic early-teen, “Yeah, it’s okay”.

Meanwhile, she continued playing computer games like The Sims.

In Year 8 we reminded Izzy again about the NCSS Challenge, wondering whether it might be more approachable to an older child. That year she achieved a perfect score! We were delighted, and so we encouraged her to start thinking about her subject choices for Years 9 and 10 — would she be interested in coding?

Suddenly she opened up with a floodgate of concerns:

  • “What if none of my friends are in the class?”
  • “My friends don’t seem to be interested in coding”
  • “What if there aren’t any girls in the class?”
  • “The other girls are making fun of coding, like it’s for nerds
  • “What if I’m not very good at coding?” (in a small voice)

Some of these we were expecting — especially that there might be a stigma associated with coding. What really took us by surprise was how important having friends in the class was going to be. Izzy wanted to choose Software, but she didn’t want to commit without some support from her social network.

Izzy coding for fun at home

About this time, I came across the Girls Programming Network (GPN). I wanted to give some of my time as a volunteer tutor, and it happened that there was a free workshop coming up at the end of the year. I wondered if Izzy would like to come along with me and attend the workshop?

“Sure,” she said. “Will there be vegetarian pizza?”

So we attended, and it changed everything.

Suddenly Izzy was full of enthusiasm for coding. She was bubbling over with talk about the girls she’d sat with and helped with their code. She had contacts for a couple of girls who were going to take Software as a subject at their school.

She felt validated.

During this one day session, coding in a workshop with other girls, Izzy realised:

  • Coding is just as fun as she thought
  • There were a lot of girls interested in doing it
  • They were all good at it (they decoded secret messages using classical cryptography)
  • She made friends she could contact when she had doubts

The biggest outcome for Izzy from this experience was that she no longer needed to have friends in the class because she felt supported generally by other girls her age. It became the no-brainer to choose Software, and she went on to come top of that class two years in a row (it’s really hard to be a parent and also *not brag about your kids*).

The key lesson I took away from this is that social support is vitally important for girls getting into coding. They need to feel support from their peers, especially other girls. They need to feel like choosing to code is a good choice that other girls respect.
Programming with gadgets like the Bit:Bot has been particularly fun for Izzy

If you have a young girl who might be interested in learning to code — ask yourself if social pressures might be preventing her from stepping up. How can you give her that feeling of support? Share some ideas in the comments below!


If this article resonated with you, give us a clap! If you know a young girl interested in learning to code, check out the GPN and Grok Learning.