Girls Who Code Club seeks to bring greater gender diversity to male-dominated tech industry

Girls Who Code Club seeks to bring greater gender diversity to male-dominated tech industry

The first rule of Girls Who Code Club: Tell everyone about Girls Who Code Club.

The second rule: You’re going to make so many mistakes.

“You’re going to mess up,” instructor Eris Koleszar told a classroom of middle school students. “And I’m going to mess up. And your code is going to go crazy and all sorts of stuff. That’s OK. Sometimes, that’s the only way you learn in coding.”

Koleszar — a senior developer at SkyVu Entertainment (maker of the “Battle Bears” games) — is one of several volunteer teachers leading a weekly gathering of girls in coding sessions at Abrahams Library.

The club, which started in March for a 20-week run, is part of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit that seeks to equip girls in grades six through 12 with computing skills. The end game is to bring greater gender diversity to the overwhelmingly male tech industry; women make up only 18 percent of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computer science, according to the National Science Foundation’s most recent survey.

Since starting in 2012, Girls Who Code has reached thousands of girls in dozens of cities. This is the first such club in Omaha, the result of a partnership between Interface Web School, Omaha Coding Women, Omaha Public Schools and the Omaha Public Library.

The Girls Who Code Club builds upon efforts by other local organizations, such as Omaha Code School, to teach coding in the metro area. Other coding events in the area include the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s CodeCrush program and the CoderDojo events, free coding workshops for children ages 8 to 17.

The club’s volunteer instructors are a mix of tech professionals — like Koleszar — computer science teachers and college students, each of them trained in Girls Who Code’s curriculum.

Organizers hope to expand to more Omaha locations after this first run. A few clubs also exist in Lincoln.

Each Saturday morning at Abrahams Library, two dozen girls break up into middle school and high school groups to learn not only several different coding languages but also core computing concepts and best practices. Communication and collaboration are also encouraged.

“If you see somebody doing something cool, tell them it’s cool,” Koleszar told her students. “Just because somebody did something cool doesn’t mean that what you did isn’t also cool. Nobody’s coolness devalues your coolness.”

The sessions will cover areas such as graphics, game design, mobile development and cryptography. They’ll explore basic concepts such as variables, functions and loops. And they’ll teach languages such as Python, JavaScript, jQuery, CSS and HTML. Throughout, some of the girls will bring the concepts together to build Web pages, apps and games.

To be in the club is free, but girls first had to complete an application and had to interview with club mentors. The Omaha club was limited to 24 girls.

Ranging from age 11 to 18, the students have different reasons for wanting to join. Some are testing the waters. Some are about to go to college for computer science and want to start on the best footing possible.

Diana Flores, 17, and Lauren Hultquist, 18, are both seniors at Omaha South High School, a magnet school with an emphasis on information technology. Both plan to go to UNO.

Flores hopes to study computer engineering or electrical engineering. Hultquist is wavering between video game design and cybersecurity. In fact, she’s lined up a summer internship doing the latter at the software company Northrop Grumman in Bellevue.

Hultquist is hoping to get a better grasp of Python at the Girls Who Code sessions.

Flores — who had zero interest in programming until recently — said she wants to catch up on as many languages as she can.

“I think you have a bigger advantage if you can learn all of those,” she said. “The more you know, the better job you can get.”

“It’s all about the jobs,” Hultquist said.

In the middle school side of the club, the girls aren’t yet focused on college or the job market. But you can find a startling pragmatism even among the younger students.

“I had been looking into coding for a while now,” said Chloe Brandenburg, a 12-year-old Harry Andersen Middle School student. “I wanted to make a multiplayer game for my friends, so I thought this would be a good idea to find out how to do that. Plus, it’s for girls only, so, sweet!”

Anjali Jayan, 12, of Peter Kiewit Middle School wants to make websites.

Apurva Hari, 11, of Millard North Middle School wants to make apps.

Maddie Thompson, 12, of Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School wants to learn JavaScript.

Mira Norman, 12, of St. Margaret Mary School wants to learn how to do it all.

One of the club’s most advanced coders (and proudest geeks) is Julie Ortman, 12, who attends Millard North Middle School.

Ortman was the girl making Ruby on Rails jokes her first day. The one who spends her free time building Minecraft mods using Python code. In a name game the club played, Ortman told the other girls, “My name is Julie, and I’m nerdy.”

She’s coding as a hobby, but she wants to work in the tech industry someday. Like her dad.

Kevin Ortman was a computer science major at UNO and now works as a hiring manager at CSG International in west Omaha.

He recognizes that his industry is predominantly men and doesn’t want it to stay that way.

“It’s exciting to be the dad of a girl who enjoys coding,” he said. “For talented female coders, really, the sky’s the limit.”

Ortman said his company has difficulty bringing in qualified job candidates, men or women. Even some applicants who have computer science degrees might lack the practical knowledge or social skills required to fit in the team. There are not enough qualified employees to fill the jobs, he said.

That disparity is becoming only greater.

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million new computer specialist jobs but fewer than a third of the computer science graduates required to fill them.

One reason for this gap is a relative lack of computer science curriculum in high schools and middle schools.

The nonprofit reports that 75 percent of U.S. schools do not teach computer science. In response, the organization has launched various initiatives, such as the Hour of Code events, one-hour tutorials on different coding languages. claims the program has reached tens of millions of students of all ages in more than 180 countries.

As groups like are trying to boost the world’s number of coders in general, programs such as Girls Who Code are targeting the more specific problem of gender inequality in the tech industry. All numbers point to a growing lack of female computer specialists.

The number of women in some STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) fields, such as biology, has grown over the past few decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the percentage of women pursuing computer science careers has dipped dramatically.

The National Science Federation puts the number of female graduates earning a computer science undergraduate degree at 18 percent. The Computing Research Association reports a lower number: 14 percent.

In 1995, the number was 29 percent. In 1985, it was 37 percent. And in the 1960s, half of computer programmers were women.

In 1967, a Cosmopolitan magazine article called “The Computer Girls” highlighted the reasons women should work in coding:

“Now have come the big, dazzling computers — and a whole new kind of work for women: programming. Telling the miracle machines what to do and how to do it. Anything from predicting the weather to sending out billing notices from the local department store. And if it doesn’t sound like women’s work — well, it just is.”

So what happened?

Industry experts don’t report just one reason for the slip in female programmers. There were many, apparently.

For one, a wider gap emerged with the advent of the personal computer in the 1980s. A 1985 study found that men were much more likely than women to use computers at home, according to the National Science Foundation. A study by NPR’s Planet Money determined the turning point was around 1984, as the percentage of women in computer science began to dive right as home computers were becoming commonplace.

The early PCs were mostly seen as toys.

“And these toys,” reads the article, “were marketed almost entirely to men and boys.”

The stereotype that computers are toys for boys became self-perpetuating. The gap grew.

Other factors include differences in how men and women pursue careers.

A Georgetown University economics study found that women are less likely to go into high-paying jobs than men, opting instead for more fulfilling careers. Tech jobs, typically lucrative, drew in more men.

Possibly another factor is the well-documented “impostor syndrome,” which “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg has covered at length.

The “impostor syndrome” is the idea that many people, even successful ones, feel like frauds. Women in particular have a tendency to undersell themselves. A stat Sandberg commonly uses: Women usually don’t apply for jobs unless they meet 100 percent of the requirements, while men will typically apply when they meet at least 60 percent.

Whatever the case for the gender disparity, Girls Who Code and other initiatives are trying to shrink it.

Lana Yager, one of the Girls Who Code mentors and a computer science teacher at Omaha South High School, worked in the industry for a long time before becoming a teacher. This is her fifth year at South.

She’s been programming, building computer networks and running her own consulting business for the better part of three decades.

She brought that experience to bear at Omaha South, which has tripled its computer science offerings in the past three years. Something she’s particularly proud of is her all-girls intro to programming class, which she started last fall.

At the first session, Yager told the Girls Who Code Club that the best part of coding today is that it’s cool and intuitive. Coding now means building apps and games. But when she first started, coding meant punching holes into cards, taking those cards to large machines, realizing you messed up, starting over.

“Nothing was cool about it, to be honest,” she said. “And it was almost all guys. It’s still almost all guys. We’re working to change that. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Like the other Girls Who Code mentors, Yager’s mantra is that it’s OK to mess up. (“Make mistakes, fall on your face, get back up.”)

But perhaps more than any coding language or practice, Yager wants her students to leave the club with more confidence.

“All these skills are going to build confidence,” she said. “That’s the most important thing, my biggest reason for wanting girls to learn how to code: to build confidence. I can do this. You can do this.”


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