Article: Girls can't be what they can't see: Ally Watson, Founder and CEO of Code Like a Girl

Diversity

Girls can't be what they can't see: Ally Watson, Founder and CEO of Code Like a Girl

In her keynote at Perspectives 2020, Ally Watson, Founder and CEO of Code Like a Girl, shares inspiring anecdotes on why it is important providing girls with the tools, knowledge and support to enter and flourish in the world of coding.
Girls can't be what they can't see: Ally Watson, Founder and CEO of Code Like a Girl

Driving gender diversity in tech should be everyone's agenda but how can once change mindsets around it? Ally Watson, Founder and CEO of Code Like a Girl, an education startup with the social mission to close the gender gap in technology, shared inspiring anecdotes at global digital learning experience Perspectives 2020, on why it is important providing girls with the tools, knowledge, and support to enter and flourish in the world of coding.

Ally founded Code Like a Girl five years ago with the aim to expose more girls to the incredible opportunities within the world of technology. This mission also stems from her early experiences as a software engineer when she would often find herself to be the only girl, only woman-be it a classroom or an office. It is this isolation that wore her down, making her long for friendship within her career, share a glass of wine with another woman in her industry, talk about programming languages, products, platforms. And so instead of getting disappointed, she decided to take action and start Code Like a Girl.

Ally says, “I realized how much better everything would be if more women joined the technology workforce. It's not just the woman that would benefit from having more women in the industry. It’s the world. It’s our economy, our innovation relies heavily on it. Because if you have a global shortage of technologists, and women are a massively untapped resource.”

Women- a massively untapped resource in tech

As businesses have been racing to digitize, automate, scale, this has raised a huge demand for technologists over the years, which will continue to increase. But education  is not churning people out fast enough, and not enough companies are investing in the upscaling of junior talent, which is resulting in this very huge demand and shortage for mid to senior tech talent. 

Ally shared a PWC report which says that 40% of jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete or dramatically disrupted in the next 10 to 15 years. Now, this is a result of automation and machine learning within the workforce. This means that some industries will become more and more competitive, those entry-level goals will become lesser and lesser, and in contrast, technology is one industry which will continue to grow.

And so we should be encouraging all students, all children of this generation to require digital skills in their studies and do that may be in addition to their passions. This ever-changing landscape of employment also means more job losses for every job gains. As per Forbes, it will a tough scenario because the jobs that will be enabled through technological advancements would require a level of digital skills, digital literacy that women are opting out of from a young age.

Thus is it important to urgently address the gender gap in technology and increase the number of women in technology is that our future depends on it. 

How big this gap is evident from the following instances. There are more men running companies than there are women. Or take for instance the aces of Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, who was one of the first pregnant executives at Facebook and did not know there was no priority parking beside her offices. Hence Ally points out that as leaders, it is our duty to do everything we can to mitigate those blind spots. 

Our world is largely designed by and for men

Ally pointed out that the stark reality that we face today in our society and our world is that it's largely designed by and for men.

There's a gap in knowledge and insights that can unfortunately lead to gender biases within the creation of many products or functions. And the consequences of this, these missing insights, missing data, can range from things so small like longer lines for the bathroom for women or colder office environments for women. This also applies to historic data, medical data, all the information that is used to inform the design and build of our world.

Citing a 2017 study that rated piano levels, Ally revealed that it is not that men were obviously not actually better pianists. But the same study also measured hand span, and the top female pianists had larger than average hand span; so the actual conclusion wasn't that men were innately better pianists, but the design of the standard keyboard prevents the average female pianist from reaching her full potential.

This shows in daily life, everyday objects are designed to the average male measurements, and there's a general attitude, but what we mean is one size is a default male size. With missing data on women and not enough women on the team when we start to bring in machine learning and artificial intelligence into our everyday life, there will be gaps and blind spots that will be detrimental implications to women's lives if we don't solve this problem.

That’s why Code Like a Girl has been on a mission to empower and enable women and girls to be equal creators in building our future because we genuinely believe that there's another being to diversify the creators in this space. It’s not just about women in tech, it's about women building tech, coding tech, and having the skills to contribute their ideas, their perspectives, and to the solutions of the problems of the world.

We all know that women are graduating at a low level. Software engineering, for example, we're only seeing an average of 15% of graduates being women. And only two-thirds of these graduates are moving into roles that make them really valuable to executive or CEO positions. We also know that girls are not showing interest at a downgrade age. Research indicates that some of them, this lack of interest, and this disengagement can be traced back to influences surrounding the experiences at childhood and early high school. The contrasting messages that girls receive is problematic because these messages have consequences. Hence technology and problem-solving skills are really important to expose kids from a young age and encouragement from a parent is one of the number one contributors to a girl choosing a computer science career or even technology skills at a young age. We need to expose all children to all problem-solving toys, but also to brilliant examples of nontraditional careers, non-stereotypical careers. It's really important to expose them to different examples of different people in different roles so they can remain open-minded about their options and not limit themselves so quickly. Which is the kind of work Code Like a Girl focusses on.

Change takes time-The Case for Losing Lena

Ally shared a very interesting case study as to how small steps in the right direction can change mindsets around women in tech. Last year, the firm worked on an exciting campaign called Losing Lena. Losing Lena was a documentary, a social activist campaign, which told a little-known story of Lena, a Swedish playboy model who posed as the Miss November centerfold in 1972. A year later, the centerfold was chosen by male researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) as an ideal test image for the algorithms they were working on to turn physical photos into digital bits.

The research laid the groundwork for the creation of the Jpeg, which is now a widely used standard for images. However, 50 years on, Lena is still being used as a test image. It was being used in classrooms, scientific white papers, and tutorials, despite the fact that it made some women in the classroom feel uncomfortable. So we created a documentary telling the story of Lena along with a lot of other women in the industry and a lot of voices within the gender equality space.

The story is symbolic of how women were left out and pushed out of the tech industry. The Lena image was an ideal test case because it has retched contrast, details anchored by familiar contours of a human face. But an important point to make is that this image wasn't the only one that had these qualities, but it was one that appealed to the predominantly male sex.

The documentary itself and the campaign was just a short example of the change that we want to see. And some of the amazing outcomes of this one campaign were that hundreds and thousands of people were having positive conversations around it. Hundreds of universities and companies pledged their allegiance to lose Lena. Companies like Facebook and universities such as UCLA and Melbourne University came on board and are no longer using the test images in their tutorials.

In the end, change will take time and it takes a lot of very small steps. More than that, it takes a community. And it is as a community, that we need to combat culture stereotypes, make women see themselves as programmers, increase the visibility of women in tech and make sure that they continue to be a part of technology. Because girls can't be what they can't see!

Perspectives 2020 is brought to you by Skillsoft and SumTotal.

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Topics: Diversity, Technology, #Perspectives2020

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