Selecting the next Girls Who Code

One Sunday morning this spring, I woke up early to help pick the next class of Girls Who Code. In the process, I gleaned insight into what it’s like to be a teenage girl in 2013.

Founded by Reshma Saujani (full disclosure: She’s a former client) and led by Executive Director Kristen Titus, Girls Who Code is dedicated to teaching high school-aged girls computer science skills so that they may pursue careers in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). After running a successful program with twenty girls in New York last summer, the organization is bringing its eight-week course — 300-plus hours of robotics, web design, and mobile development; talks by female entrepreneurs and engineers; and mentorship — to Detroit, San Francisco, San Jose, and Davis, California.

A group of about a dozen people — educators, GWC staff members, and people who work in tech — paired up to read fifty applications over the course of four hours. (Each application was reviewed by two people.) In addition to soliciting biographical information (all names were redacted) and a personal statement, the application asked why they wanted to attend the program and how they learned about it, what they did the previous summer, how they spent their elective time in and outside of school, what they hoped to pursue for their careers, and what problem they would most like to solve using technology. We were instructed to judge them on a set of criteria that included writing skills, creativity, logic, motivation, aspirations, and desire to participate in the course.

Over the course of all fifty applications (I read for the New York program, which culled from the five boroughs of New York City, as well as New Jersey and Connecticut), I got a snapshot of teenage girlhood. They came from a whole host of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds (while the girls’ identities were hidden, their parents’ contact information was not). They attended public and private schools and learned about the program from parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and the web. Some had to take care of younger siblings after school and during the summer; others traveled with their families to their parents’ native countries. Some had involved teachers and ample opportunity to pursue computer science in electives, school clubs and extracurricular programs, while others attended schools that had no such resources. Some girls were preparing for college by taking SAT prep courses; others admitted that they didn’t use their time outside of school productively — summers were spent hanging out with friends and watching TV — and wanted to remedy that. A handful had taught themselves to code and were looking to augment their skills, while others said that they felt stymied by the lack of access to technical learning. A few expressed excitement that, if selected for the program, they would gain exposure to accomplished women working in tech. Most felt that GWC would teach them skills they would need to get ahead. They wanted to be scientists, doctors, engineers, fashion models, teachers, and actresses.

These girls lived complicated lives. They juggled multiple responsibilies. They knew the world had some big problems and grasped that technology could help solve them, even if they didn’t know how. They worried about the opportunities available to them as girls, and about keeping up with new technology. Even if they had resources and access, they were facing a brutally competitive college application process.

By the time I had completed reading the applications, there were two things I knew for sure: I was very happy not to be a sixteen-year-old girl, and if I could, I would enroll in the program myself. I’ve lost count of the number of times I wished I had coding skills. As I’ve learned — and, from their stated job aspirations, it looks like the applicants grasp this, too — it’s useful even in non-tech careers. Maybe one of these lucky young women will end up teaching me.