Her male classmates weren’t thrilled about women engineers.

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

When Aya Mouallem took her first software engineering class, she had a rude awakening: she wasn’t exactly welcome.

As one of two girls in the class of over 20 students, she felt out of place right away. And this was only made worse by the comments she’d hear from her male classmates.

“[They] said, ‘it’s no wonder there aren’t a lot of girls in [electrical and computer engineering] . . . because girls are bad at math.’ They casually mention[ed] phrases like, ‘we were happy without girls in this major,’” Aya recalls.

Unfortunately, comments like these weren’t exactly new for Aya.

She had been interested in STEM from a very young age. “I never really felt interested in playing with dolls as much as I loved to know how stuff worked,” she says. And while her immediate family had been supportive of her interests in STEM — calling her the ‘thinker’ in the family — she had faced a lot of sexism from other family members, acquaintances, classmates, and even staff at her university.

That didn’t hold her back, though. Since Aya’s parents encouraged her to ask questions and be curious, she kept pursuing her passion. When smartphones became available, for example, she eagerly explored how they worked and became her family’s go-to ‘tech support’.

But Aya knows that many girls don’t get that kind of encouragement.

“A lot of other girls were forbidden by their parents from pursuing ECE because it wasn’t ‘feminine’ by societal standards,” she explains.

Aya knew that, as a result, girls weren’t getting the same opportunities to explore technology as boys their age. For example, boys were more likely to be called to help change a lightbulb or to see how a car works, “but girls were supposed to stay busy with their dolls,” says Aya.

So girls who might have a knack for STEM were being discouraged from exploring a field they might otherwise be passionate about later in life.

“Their implications are very dangerous,” she explains. “There’s a lot to be done when it comes to raising awareness to gender inequality in STEM.”

That’s why in March 2017, Aya teamed up with Maya Moussa, another classmate studying computer engineering, to empower girls to explore STEM.

They created All Girls Code, a project that provides girls between the ages of 12 and 19 in Lebanon with access to STEM fields through mentorship programs and other opportunities.

 

“We wanted to give girls the opportunity to try hands-on STEM workshops before they have to choose a university major,” Aya says.

It wouldn’t be easy, though. At first, they struggled to get funding for the project. Since All Girls Code doesn’t generate revenue, it was hard to get the financial support that the project needed. So to get it off the ground, “we [first] reached out to the local community through our university, our phone contacts and people we’ve networked with at tech events,” she explains.

Luckily, their hard work paid off. They were able to get support from their university, the American University of Beirut, which provided a space for the workshops. Aya and Maya also recruited over 100 volunteers to support All Girls Code as instructors, graphic designers, photographers, moviemakers, and administrators.

Now in its second year, All Girls Code is continuing its mission with its flagship summer program, Tech Immersion.

The program focuses on three goals in particular: skills, exposure, and sisterhood.

For the development of technical skills, All Girls Code has created a curriculum that allows girls to use code to help improve health, the environment, and other fields.

In sponsoring hackathons, for example — events where the girls collaborate to create software or hardware for a specific purpose — they learn to apply their technical skills to solve real-world problems. These hackathons also provide girls with opportunities to learn how to pitch their ideas and network.

 

The girls are also given mentorship opportunities, working directly with women in the industry. Through the program, they’ve learned about Lebanese women entrepreneurs, the latest trends in tech and Silicon Valley, and which ‘tech titans’ in the industry they should be familiar with.

To ensure they’re reaching a diverse group of girls, all events by All Girls Code are free of charge.

“We’ve been proud to welcome girls from more than ten countries, including public school students, refugees, and private school students,” says Aya.

In a field dominated by men, Aya believes that sisterhood plays a critical role in the mission of All Girls Code.

“It was important for us to nurture this bonding between them over STEM, just like they would bond over dolls,” she explains. Working together to develop their ideas and participating in icebreakers are just some of the ways in which these girls are able to connect with each other.

 

That’s why Aya wants to expand All Girls Code to be worldwide, impacting an even greater number of girls. While over 200 girls have participated so far, she hopes that in the future, there will be thousands.

After all, it was the support of other women in the field that helped her find her way, too.

“When girls try tech together, they feel that they are not outsiders,”she says.And through her work at All Girls Code, she’s hopeful for a future in which girls in STEM never again feel out of place again.

Gabrielle Rocha Rios co-authored this post with Sam Dylan Finch.

Creating Equal Workplaces: My Recruitment Experience

In the past few years, many companies have implemented a 50/50 recruitment policy – 50% women and 50% men. This is an amazing improvement, since it shows that companies want to become equal employers and help women excel in industries where they have been historically underrepresented.  Even so, I ask myself whether there are ways we could make this policy more effective. Is there a better way of promoting gender equality in recruitment?

When I started applying for internships last year, I was impressed by all that was being done to ensure equality. Companies in male-dominated industries such as tech and finance had several programmes in place to inspire women to apply for their jobs. Actually, there were often more opportunities for me than for my male counterparts at university.

During my applications, companies hailed diversity and emphasised how much better they would perform if their workforce was not so streamlined. Many firms published yearly reports on gender diversity and pay differences, and some even boasted a 50/50 policy that had finally been fulfilled during that recruitment year.

However, people started asking questions. If you recruit 50% men and 50% women – will you really be hiring the best people? Is diversity more important than meritocracy? And I see where they come from. This top-down approach doesn’t deal with the root of the problem – why do women and men apply to different jobs in the first place? How can a company help solve this problem?

I have attended several recruitment sessions, some of them tailored for women. All of them displayed charts and numbers of how equal they had become. The workplace is now full of women, they said. But I asked myself, why is it only men giving the presentations? If there are plenty of qualified women at this company, surely they should be the ones attending university events for female graduates?

I believe that gender roles live on because we keep enforcing them. If I never see my mom fixing the car or my dad cooking when I am young, I am more likely to enforce the same roles in my home when I grow up. Likewise, if I never see women represent a tech company, investment bank or a political party, I am far less likely to see myself doing so in the future.

I once attended a women’s recruitment event where all of the speakers were women. There were about 50 students attending, all female, and most of the day was spent discussing women in the workplace. At one point, one of the attendees raised her hand and asked about meritocracy. “It is amazing that you do these events,” she said, “but how do you ensure that you still hire the best, most qualified people?” The speaker replied that meritocracy was very important to them – a principle they would never abandon.

But when I looked around the room, I saw only women. And I knew that the company did not plan to host a ‘men’s recruitment event’ – imagine the questions they would be asked if they did! So how can they claim to be hiring the very best people, when clearly women had a much better chance of securing an interview?

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of women out there who are equally qualified, and many times even more qualified, than their male competitors, and often women shy away from applying while men tend to exaggerate their competencies and achievements.

But women deserve to be offered jobs based on their merit, not just their gender. That’s why we need to know that we were actually the best candidate for the position we’re offered, and that we are not just there because of a diversity programme. Our male colleagues will never respect us if they don’t think we deserve to be there in the first place, we won’t feel confident, and the situation will become even worse. It is incredibly important to find a balance between diversity and meritocracy in recruitment processes.

There are several ways of achieving a more equal workplace. One of the solutions might be 50/50 recruitment policies – after all, more women are entering the tech and finance industries than ever before and we will hopefully soon see a more equal gender division across company hierarchies.

But until then, I believe that there are several other ways we can encourage women to apply for the jobs where they will thrive the most. One is showcasing female role models – mentors, presentations and workshops are very effective in reaching out to students and establishing professional connections between talented women. Another is adopting gender-blind recruitment processes. Many companies have started using video interviews without a human interviewer – algorithms help determine who the best candidates are without a gender-biased lens.

There is, of course, the problem of men and women demonstrating different personality traits that are deemed suitable for different kinds of jobs, but that’s something to be dealt with much earlier in life than in graduate interviews. By screening CVs and conducting initial interviews without knowing applicants’ gender, we might end up with completely different recruits than through the traditional process.

And lastly, us women need to know that we are able. We need to show how qualified we are and dare to brag a little. The workspace is competitive, and in order to succeed, we need to be that way too.

Sometimes we will be faced with a gender-biased recruiter, and when that happens, we just need to prove why they are wrong. Hopefully, we can create a more equal workplace for our daughters, where they don’t need to attend all-female events to stand the same chance as their brothers of securing their dream job. And at that point, we will know we have succeeded.

These Girls are Coding with Confidence

The world is changing. Over recent decades, we’ve seen it progress at a previously unimaginable pace – most noticeably, in technology.

Not too long ago, computers filled whole rooms; today, they fit in our pockets. To communicate with someone in a different country meant writing letters and waiting weeks for a response, or spending large amounts of money to talk on the phone. Today, people all over the world are just a few clicks away. Technology has advanced so much already, and it won’t stop anytime soon.

Computer programming has become the language of the future, and as our world becomes more and more digitized, it will transform from a language to a superpower, enabling us to control computers and create new things.

It seems, however, that this superpower belongs exclusively to men. 20% of Google’s tech jobs, 19% of Facebook’s and a dismal 15% of Twitter’s are held by women. After being told for years that coding ‘just isn’t for them’, in a world where there are over 3 men in the tech industry for every woman, it’s no surprise that many girls and women find themselves hesitant to learn code and become a part of the tech industry.

Sixteen-year-old Japnit Kaur Ahuja realized this when she saw that she had been the only girl among twenty boys in her school’s computer club for three years – something not uncommon even in prominent schools in Delhi, where only 4% of their computer club members are female. In 2017, she founded The Girl Code with her friend Samriddhi Agnihotri in order to change this norm.

Today, The Girl Code is based in New Delhi and Singapore and is comprised solely of students – teenagers looking to make a difference in the world. These students run and manage the project, which aims to encourage girls to code and instils confidence in them that they can code, thus eradicating an essential problem of a lack of confidence.

By teaching them Python through interactive media and fun methods, and by exposing them to a community of like-minded girls, The Girl Code contributes to the effort to give rise to female programmers set to take the IT world by storm.

Through their web platform, which was designed by the students in the organization, they have opened a world of programming up to young girls. It includes a 10-chapter, online, comprehensive course in Python and programming. Along with easy access to tutorials, it also comes with a forum where students can interact with Mentors (female volunteers who are seventeen and eighteen years of age) and like-minded individuals, forming a community which acts as a safe haven for them to reach out to for help.

Credit: The Girl Code

Having established ties with several schools, The Girl Code holds workshops to encourage female students to take up coding. The organization held its first workshop at The Mother’s International School, one of the top 10 schools in India, on January 2 2018. Over 50 girls, ranging from 7 to 16 years of age attended. The girls began the workshop with absolutely no prior knowledge on programming, but by the end, had all constructed a game using Scratch and were proficient in Python.

There was a stark contrast in them – through the workshop, they transformed from shy, diffident girls to girls who were confident in themselves and their abilities. A few weeks after the workshop, two new participants had joined the school’s computing club, MINET, and another had cleared a cyber Olympiad. Their second workshop took place in May at Gyan Bharati School and was equally successful.

Credit: The Girl Code

The Girl Code now plans to host summer workshops at several schools in Delhi and Singapore to further their goal of reducing the gender gap in the tech industry. The organisation also launched a video campaign, ‘Code with Confidence’, where female programmers from around the world share their programming origins and journey in order to inspire young girls.

Today, women make up only a fraction of the tech industry. But there’s change in the air. Initiatives such as this one are not only changing the lives of individuals, but are also changing the very structure of society.

The Girl Code is a testament to the female youth of our world. Before long, these women will be the leaders of the industry – and they want you to be among them.

5 Ways to Build a Tech Career

There have been more technology innovations in the last two centuries than over the last 5,000 years combined, and yet regardless of all the advancements – from AI chatbots, driverless cars and even using drones for home delivery – we are still hearing about the underrepresentation of women in the technology sector

According to Mashable, in 2013, only 18% of computer science graduates in the U.S. were women. Professionally, women make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce. A recent study found that gender stereotypes around STEM can affect girls as young as age six.

It’s mind-boggling that in this digital age it still feels like we haven’t made much progress with women in STEM. But rather than feeling frustrated, I advocate that a better attitude is to think, “what am I going to do about it?”.

After years of battling with this issue in the digital sector, and feeling my confidence dip and slide, I feel that the worst thing we can do is focus too much on the views others feed us. We’re more connected to other people now than ever before and, with our current behaviour of consuming news, certain mainstream narratives can really frames our mindsets. Regular tech news about men inventing and creating are presented as the norm. After a while it’s easy to believe the subtext: STEM is for men.

I’m advocating for change starting at the individual level. From my experience in digital tech and programming – it works. If you’re interested and want to get involved, then don’t listen to what others say. Ignore the negative noise and instead, pay more attention to strengthening your own interests. We must be proactive and empower ourselves, because waiting to be empowered just isn’t going to work.

So how can you achieve this self-empowerment? No matter your age, background or experience, check out these top tips to unlock your potential:

  1. Age is no barrier but commitment is key.

    Tech is open to everyone. You don’t have to be a millennial to get involved. If you have previous working experience and skills, these can be transferred into a new role within the tech sector. All you need is passion and commitment to a clear idea. Check out Masako Wakamiya’s app this 81-year-old woman learnt to code Apple’s Swift programming language from a younger friend via Skype and Facebook messenger.

  2. Embrace failures.

    This group of students participated in a 15-hour hackathon but encountered a lot of stumbles, accidents and errors within the short deadline. They eventually pulled it together and went on to win first place with their 3D printed device which translates printed text into Braille.

  3. Make, be, do.

    There are loads of great (free) online programming courses to help you get started. But the crux of any self-taught journey is that you have to put your skills in practice. You have to actually do something. Try building new things, over and over. If you’re in the right industry then you’ll be fuelled by desire to keep trying. Remember, think of yourself as a coder, not a girl who codes! 

  4. Sharing is caring.

    Coding together with friends or in a team can make your learning experience more enjoyable and expose you to a wide range of ideas you might not have considered on your own. Check out Meetup.com to find events happening in your neighbourhood. Even better, if you have the opportunity, why not help others into coding too and grow the community.  As they say, ‘to teach is to learn twice over’!

  5. Stay curious.

    Remember that tech is constantly evolving and programming languages change. Read widely, listen to podcasts, and experience as many coding events as you can. The ability to self-teach is already a critical skill that many tech startups look for, so don’t be left behind!

As Reshua Saujani – founder of Girls Who Code – says, there’ll be 1.4 million jobs in computer science in 2020. Girls are currently on track to hold just 3% of them.

We have to change this reality, and we have to change it now. We’re living in a digital age and headed towards an even greater tech-powered future. Of course, it can seem like there a million reasons why you shouldn’t get into tech, or can’t. But as long as you want to, then that one reason to start is all you need.

A Smart Thing To Do: Data on Women in Higher Education & STEM

“When we talk about improving women’s lives, education is an issue that comes up over and over again as an equalizer, because when women and girls have access to an education, they can accomplish anything.” – United State of Women

But do all forms of education create equity where gender disparities are greatest? Although we need to work toward improving women’s and girls’ access to education on all levels, real disparities deepen in secondary and higher education environments around the world. Significant progress has been made as 2/3 of developing nations have achieved gender parity when it comes to access to primary education. Despite significant progress made on girls’ school enrollment in the past decade, 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school in developing countries. The situation is worst for the poorest rural girls in South and West Asia: only 13% complete lower secondary school.

If we agree with UNICEF that educating girls is “both an intrinsic right and a critical lever to reaching other development objectives,” then advocating for a higher output of female university graduates and an equal presence of women in STEM fields should ultimately be the goal. So, why are so few women completing secondary and higher education studies and why are so few represented in STEM fields?

Adolescent girls attending secondary school, who would continue on with higher education, face many disrupting economic and social demands. This includes everything from household responsibilities, child labor, child marriage, caring for children, gender-based violence, and FGM. Challenges of marital and family obligations in secondary education years truly hinders young women’s opportunities to continue education at universities or in STEM fields. Recent estimates show that 1/3 of girls in the developing world are married before 18 and 1/3 give birth before age 20. Yet higher and secondary education helps prevent these issues: if all girls received a secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would drop by 64% from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.

In countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, formal or written threats to close girls’ schools have fueled gender motivated school attacks. In similar places, millions of young women often face verbal, physical, and sexual harassment should they aspire to study at higher learning institutions. Even those that don’t face direct physical threats are often hindered by deep social stigmas associated with women pursuing higher education. Universities in Africa continue to be male-dominated and women, especially those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have a very low presence in these institutions.

Despite all these challenges, we know that secondary and higher education for women is:

  1. Lifesaving – If all women had a secondary education, child deaths would be cut in half, saving 3 million lives.
  2. Healthy – If all women had a secondary education, 12 million children would be saved from stunting from malnutrition.
  3. Safe – Almost 60% fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 years in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they all had a secondary education.
  4. Profitable – Education narrows pay gaps between men and women. In Pakistan, women with a primary education earn only 51% what men earn, but with a secondary education, they earn 70% what men earn. In Jordan, women with a primary education earn 53% what men earn, but with a secondary education, they earn 67% what men earn. More money in the hands of female workers, especially through careers in higher paying STEM fields, boosts economies and would bolster GDPs.
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The Obama Administration supports more opportunities for girls in STEM fields. Here President Barack Obama is seen with young girls participating in a coding event.

In places like the United States and the EU – women are earning more secondary education certificates and college degrees than men. But despite progress, “women still occupy only 28% of STEM jobs and comprise just 37% of STEM college graduates” in the States. Numbers of women studying STEM fields peaked in early 2000s and now we have seen a decrease in many fields since 1991. For example, women made up 30% of US computer science bachelor degrees in 1991 and in 2011 only made up 17% of computer science graduates.

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In the EU, there are more women in STEM fields, but that doesn’t mean we have actually been able to remove the disparity there – just as many men are entering those fields of study and the gender gap has remained constant.

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“But what’s the point of girls overcoming so many barriers to get to school if they don’t learn anything?”
– Malala Yousafzai

If we are going to work hard for girls to be in school, then let’s work to assure that they are receiving a quality education that includes secondary and tertiary studies. Let’s be sure education allows girls to feel empowered to choose whatever fields most interest them and equips them to be active in all sectors to bring about change. Our pride in global efforts to reach girls with primary school needs to be overcome as we work to build women as leaders. Anything short of a full education, means disparities will still exist if women cannot be equipped to be considered equally educated and capable to lead alongside men.

“The problem of access lies at all levels, and perhaps is often ignored at the highest levels where we desperately need women doctors, scholars, engineers, scientists and thinkers.”
– Muhammad H. Zaman 

Without higher education, women will continue to be under-represented in leadership roles in society and decision making in all sectors. UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, who launched the HeForShe movement said, “A good university is like a tiny utopia – it’s a miniature model of how the whole of society could look.” Change starts in higher education and with it women can have equal roles in business meetings, political cabinets, and research and design firms.

UN Women's HeForShe Campaign Special Event
Actress Emma Watson for the United Nations’ HeForShe campaign. Photo: UN Women.

Ultimately, pursuing higher education should never solely be about career. If it is only about career opportunities then we should clearly make vocational paths available to women and champion both sexes having equity in each. But if it is about opportunity, creativity, about including women in the processes of government, leadership, and any career field, then we need to champion higher education as a whole. Letting girls be smart, is a smart thing to do.

The percentages in the illustration refer to to following numbers and statistics:

  • If all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64%, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.
  • Although good progress has been made on girls’ school enrollment in the past decade, in developing countries 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school. The situation for the poorest rural girls is dire: only 13% of the poorest rural adolescent girls in South and West Asia complete lower secondary school.
  • Almost 60% fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 years in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they all had a secondary education.
  • In the EU-28, of all university graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction-related studies (second most common types of degrees in the EU), only 3.9% are female.
  • 12% of women in higher education are in in sciences and engineering vs. 24% of men. (http://www.lacs.ps/documentsShow.aspx?ATT_ID=7778 UN Women)
  • Numbers of women in STEM fields peaked in early 2000s and now we have seen a decrease in every field since 1991. For example, women made up 30% of computer science bachelor degrees in 1991 and in 2011 only make up 17% of computer science graduates.

Featured Illustration: Elina Tuomi

The Nobel Prize: A Mostly-Men’s Club?

Since the 1970s, the number of women among Nobel Prize winners remains low. This issue brings to light the gender disparity surrounding Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields and the need for encouraging young women to pursue their scientific dreams.

The Nobel Prize has long been recognized as the most prestigious award available in the fields of literature, medicine, chemistry, physics, peace and economics, and has been awarded to 874 laureates and 26 organizations between 1901 and 2015. Yet, out of these numbers, the prize has only been awarded to 49 women. What is keeping women from earning the recognition they deserve in these fields?

According to Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of ” Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries,” “anti-nepotism laws in the U.S. actively prevented women from working at the same universities where their husbands worked until 1971.” In addition, according to Robert Marc Friedman, historian from the University of Oslo, “women faced barriers to entering higher education, especially at elite institutions that offered the resources to do the cutting-edge science that could get them nominated for the prize.”

Although some women, such as Maria Goeppert Mayer and Marie Skłodowska Curie, did find ways around the rules and received the prestigious award, women, in general, still struggle to enter these scientific fields. In fact, most women earned the Nobel Prize in the literature and peace categories as they were awarded 14 and 16 times, respectively, since 1901.

Moreover, according to Stephanie Kovalchik, a statistician at the National Cancer Institute, “up until the 1970s, women’s Nobel Prize wins in the sciences overall kept pace with their participation in the fields. It’s after the 1970s that a gender gap emerged in Nobel Prize awards. As women’s participation in the sciences began to grow at a faster rate, the Nobel Prizes did not keep up.”

Cultural and sociological reasons seem to play a huge role. In fact, according to Mary Ann Liebert, founder of the Rosalind Franklin Society, since you have to be nominated in order to win the Nobel Prize, “men tend not to nominate [women], and women don’t nominate themselves. Women scientists have to be more assertive in seeking nominations. I think that’s a major issue. And I think men have to put women’s names into nomination, too.” Moreover, the Nobel committee seems to have a preference for older laureates, barring younger female scientists who have made tremendous discoveries from earning the recognition.

While some countries have made large investments in encouraging more women to enter STEM fields, these actions are not sufficient. We invite you to join us in this crucial endeavor to empower women to pursue their scientific dreams and to earn the recognition they deserve in these fields. As Linda B. Baker, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine, puts it: “I sincerely hope that my receiving a Nobel Prize will send a message to young women everywhere that the doors are open to them and that they should follow their dreams.”

Cover photo credit: National Cancer Institute/FreeStockPhotos