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Girls Who Code (and the women who inspire them)

Vicky Brady thinks back to her time in high school in the late 70s when “studying computer science was not a very welcoming field. It was not suggested as an option for us.” By option, she means “university degree” and “career” and by us, she means “us girls.”

Nevertheless, she persisted. She learned to code while studying at the University of Toronto, waiting in long lines late at night at the computer lab with her punch card in hand. Upon graduating she found herself at the leading edge of the PC revolution. She learned and then shared her knowledge of the first PC-based spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, with her colleagues in the royalties and accounting departments at CBS Records, transforming the way she and others worked. It sparked a career that would see her teach information technology, data processing and computer science to thousands of students across Toronto and receive a Prime Minister’s Award for her outstanding achievement at “modelling technological expertise for young women.”

Vicky (pictured on the right) is reluctant to call herself a pioneer as a woman in coding but her 31-year career with the Toronto Catholic District School Board and her subsequent work as a program manager for The Learning Partnership suggest that, indeed, she is. She has opened up the world of technology to thousands of students and trained hundreds of educators to integrate computer science and information technology into their teaching. With The Learning Partnership, she trains teachers to incorporate coding in their classrooms through Coding Trek and Coding Quest and continues to influence thousands of students in Grades 1 through 6 to learn to code.

From then to now

Flash forward to spring 2019.

Rachel Coppens, a senior software engineer at Capital One Canada, is asked by one of her colleagues to coordinate a coding workshop for young students. Capital One has recently signed on as lead national partner of The Learning Partnership’s Coding Quest program.

The employee volunteer initiative Rachel is asked to lead for Capital One in Canada would soon dovetail with Capital One Coders – an enterprise-wide program that provides opportunities for students to learn to code. “It was really inspiring for me to hear that at a young age these students were getting interested in coding. It made me wish I had Coding Quest when I was in grade school and had learned how to code much sooner in my life,” Rachel says.

In September 2019, Rachel (seen in the picture on the right) and her co-lead Anna Ostapenko (left in picture), also a senior software engineer at Capital One, held the first official Coders event for Toronto-area students in a Grade 5 Coding Quest class recommended by Vicky Brady. From there, the program has expanded to reach additional elementary schools across Toronto.

Coding as an option

Both Rachel and Anna share a passion for inspiring students to consider coding as an option for study and as a career. In different ways, they both have experienced – as Vicky Brady did – the opposite.

Anna explains, “We are telling students that this opportunity exists for them, so at least they have a choice. In my case, my reason to get involved was because my sister really struggled to pick a career once she finished school. She changed directions a couple of times and it was really stressful for her. I think back then if someone had introduced different possibilities [like coding], it would have been easier for her. This is my way to help students not to struggle as much as she did.”

Rachel adds, “I had never touched computer code before a little over four years ago, so I often found myself wishing that these opportunities had existed for me. If there’s something I can do now to change that for even one young student, that would be great.”

Coding inspires deeper learning … and more

They both believe that learning to code can be life-changing. Rachel shares the story of one young girl who put a blue border around an image. “It’s just one little piece of code, but she was so excited she did that. She looked at me and said, ‘I actually did something, I’m good at something, I can code! I’m going to go back to school next week and I’m going to tell everybody I’m actually good at something because nobody thinks I’m good at anything.’”

The memory still gives her goosebumps. "It's about them trying something new, being creative and taking a risk,” Rachel said. “We want to give them something they didn’t have before, a new idea and new confidence.”

The deeper learning attained through Coding Quest – about collaboration, self-esteem and empathy among other competencies – was illustrated powerfully for Vicky at a fundraising event held by The Learning Partnership in 2017. “A Coding Quest student, a girl in Grade 5, was interviewed about her experience and said ‘you have to think about your project from the side of the person who’s using it.’ It’s not just about coding for coding’s sake, but about problem-solving and thinking from the point of view of the user. It’s always something I integrated in my teaching – and the fact that it came through on that stage in front of all those people was very deep and meaningful for me.”

The times have changed … but inclusion and representation still matter

Vicky recalls teaching a technology course focused on hardware at Michael Power/St. Joseph High School. “There weren’t as many girls taking those courses. The few girls in the class were nervous and, because I was a female teacher, they’d sit up at the front. Noticing how many boys were in the room, one said she was thinking of dropping the class because she felt outnumbered. I said, please stay; I need company!,” Vicky says. (The student stayed.)

If Rachel’s and Anna’s experiences as women in coding are typical, the times have changed. Rachel says that when she moved from HR to the technical side of the business at Capital One, “there were a lot of female developers. Anna was on the team and there were two other women. I’m really happy that we have enough female representation here that there could be a tech team with a lot of women on it,” she says.

Rachel was less concerned about her gender than she was about her non-technical background. “I had a bit of anxiety but more about wondering, ‘do I belong here?’ I didn’t go to school for computer science. But people hear what I have to say, they value my opinions, I can share my ideas, and I don’t feel like I always have to say: 'this might be a stupid question, but …',” she says.

Capital One may be ahead of the curve in this regard. There is still a clear gender gap in technology fields, with women remaining under-represented and paid less than men. (The Brookfield Institute, Who are Canada’s Tech Workers?, January 2019). Inclusion and representation still matter.

Anna’s perspective is that, more than being a role model for girls, she’s a representative of what a technology career looks like for both girls and boys. “Kids ask me ‘what is real work like?’ Both girls and boys are interested in that question. We want to inspire students to see a technology career as an option. We can’t have only IT in this world, but we want to reach as many kids as possible so when they have to make this choice they know their options,” Anna says.

“If nothing else we hope to spark some creativity, help students try something new and challenge themselves,” Rachel says. “The way the world is going now even having a basic grasp of code is beneficial. It’s really fun, too, if you like solving problems or doing puzzles. A lot of people have this assumption they can’t do it because they are not technical. We hope the Capital One Coders program breaks down that stereotype of who you need to be to be a coder.”

With women like Vicky, Rachel and Anna promoting and modelling technology as an academic and career path through Coding Trek and Coding Quest, the future looks welcoming for girls and boys who are learning to code.