Sylvie Rosen, 17, is a high school senior in New York. Her father, Jay Rosen, 58, is a journalism professor at New York University.
Jay: Have you taken any kind of programming class?
Sylvie: I’m taking a beginner programming class this semester, and I took a seminar on programming with physics during freshman year. This semester we started at a very basic level, coding lines, balls, colors: Now we’re working on balls colliding. The class is taught in what the teacher calls a “flipped environment.” He assigns videos to watch for homework, and we work on the new topics in class. Any questions or debugging gets worked on in class.
Jay: Why did you elect to take a beginning course in programming?
Sylvie: It was a different kind of opportunity that I’d not been offered before (aside from that freshman seminar), and I was interested in discovering whether or not I enjoy programming. At my school, there has never, to my knowledge, been a programming class before.
Jay: What’s the gender breakdown in that class?
Sylvie: I was waiting for that one. There are nine students and including me, two girls.
Jay: Seven boys, two girls: Do you think that makes a difference for you as a student in the class?
Sylvie: For me specifically? No, I do not think so. The class is based on individual work and less on collaboration. If it were the other way around, I would have a different answer.
Jay: Why do you think there are so few girls in the class?
Sylvie: Lots of reasons: Art and music classes meet during the same time, so students cannot take art and programming. There’s also an English class that meets then. Students — seniors especially — want to have some free periods, and that period is the elective block. I also think offering the class solely senior year caused less girls to take it. Many students don’t want to commit to another kind of class so late in their high school career. Most students in this class have had some experience with programming before, however minimal. So, if girls in my grade have been less exposed to coding previously, I think they’re less likely to take a class on it.
Jay: So what would your recommendation be for getting more girls at your high school interested in programming?
Sylvie: Start earlier! Or make the classes mandatory, at least for one semester. That would get more girls as well as boys involved. I also don’t think girls are as aware as boys of coding as something to learn or be interested in.
Jay: Why are boys more aware of coding as something to be interested in? How does that happen?
Sylvie: I think that boys play more video games. That probably piques their interest in learning about coding and how all these games work. I know I never thought about it until this year, when I started learning about programming. And, of course, there is the stereotype of the male programmers.
Jay: You never thought about it until this year? Never thought about what?
Sylvie: How games work. What line of code in angry birds makes the bird fly when you lift your finger. I didn’t think about, say, how many lines of code it takes to make a ball follow your mouse, or what that code includes, or what variables are necessary.
Jay: So is this beginner’s course getting you more interested in programming?
Sylvie: Yes it is! I hope to take at least one coding class in college.
Jay: I want to ask this in the least defensive way possible, because I genuinely don’t know the answer myself. Do you think your parents sent any “girls don’t code” messages your way, subtle or overt? Through omission (not doing something) or commission?
Sylvie: Yes, actually I do. I wasn’t offered any opportunities to code earlier than high school, or outside of high school. My parents didn’t ask if I wanted to learn to code over a summer or after school. However, I’ve never been a “STEM student,” so I understand why they might not have thought about it.
Jay: What would have been the right age?
Sylvie: Seventh or eighth grade probably. Maybe ninth, but any older and I would not have chosen it over other activities.
Jay: When you say you have never been a STEM student, what do you mean? You’ve done pretty well in math and science.
Sylvie: Math is actually my worst subject by far. I do well enough in science, but it’s not my favorite subject, and it doesn’t ignite a love for the subject the same way the humanities does.
Jay: OK, but coding can be just as useful in the humanities, in the arts, or in activism. Civic hacking is an entire field in itself. Are you aware of that?
Sylvie: No, I am not.
Jay: Or maybe the question should be: why didn’t your digitally aware father make you aware of that?
Sylvie: I really couldn’t say.
Jay: You have taken a look at Girls Who Code, right?
Sylvie: It sounds like a great program! From what I’ve read, the girls who do the program come out with a positive experience, more opportunities, and a desire to learn more about coding. Also, I love how they present the statistics. It’s clear and simple.
Jay: “Applicants must be a current sophomore or junior girl in high school.” If we had offered you the opportunity to apply for those summers, do you think you would have been interested?
Sylvie: Well I read that and got disappointed, so… yes.
Jay: I’m disappointed too. In myself! Because I knew about that organization.
Sylvie: Ah, well. Nobody’s perfect.
Jay: Have you ever thought about starting a company? Is that something you can see yourself doing?
Sylvie: I would love to do that some day!
Jay: Your cousin Zack has started three companies, and they are all successful. Does knowing him and hearing him talk about his companies make it seem like a doable thing for you? Or is it more like: That’s his life, not mine?
Sylvie: More of the latter, I think. His path definitely won’t be mine, and I think I’m less of a risk taker. There is influence in that I respect him, he is successful, and I can learn a lot from him. But I won’t be following his path, even if I end up at a similar destination.
Jay: You read Ann Friedman’s Matter story on the larger problem of women in technology. What did you think of it?
Sylvie: I identified with her point about “the hoodie archetype.” I also liked how she wrote about which schools and companies are trying to solve this problem. Those stories are inspiring and quite hopeful.
Jay: This is a quote from that piece:
There’s some truth to the fact that women are more risk-averse in male-dominated industries like tech and finance, but it isn’t because of innate gender difference. Researchers have found that, in environments where women are greatly outnumbered, they succumb to ‘stereotype threat’: Their worries about conforming to negative perceptions cause their worst fears to come true.
Strike a chord?
Sylvie: Yes! I wanted to mention that part of the article; it particularly resonated with me.
Jay: How so?
Sylvie: Well, I think women are worried about how other people think of them, and even though I try not to think that way, it is sometimes unavoidable. There is also the opinion that you don’t want to be called “a woman in tech” and singled out because you are a woman. That must contribute to this “stereotype threat.”
Jay: When you close your eyes and try to picture the people who are making this stuff, creating these platforms and machines, what do you see?
Sylvie: That is something I had zero sense of when I was younger.
Jay: Are you saying that technology just seemed to “appear,” and you didn’t really think of it as made by people?
Sylvie: I thought of it as made by people, but I did not think beyond that as to who did the making.
Jay: And how about now?
Sylvie: I see more men than women, but I also would like to think tech companies are progressive in fixing the gap because they’re at the forefront of modern civilization.