A Square Deal for Women

A College Code Camp participant shares her experience as a women in STEM.

Written by Tali Marcus.

College Code Camp is our four-day immersion program for women studying computer science. We’ve been so inspired by what we’ve seen these young women accomplish that we decided to host our second College Code Camp of the year.

We are now accepting applications for College Code Camp, which takes place August 13–16. Wellesley student Tali Marcus shares her experience participating in Code Camp and being a women in STEM.

This past January, I had the chance to spend a week in San Francisco, where I visited well-known startups, learned new development languages, and met with leaders at Square. Perhaps surprisingly, I did all this with 20 other women. Our trip was sponsored by Square as part of their second annual College Code Camp, an initiative to encourage women to enter technical fields.

As a student at Wellesley College, a women’s school, I have taken for granted that technology is — and should be — a viable career option for women. Since my first computer science course at Wellesley (which I took on a whim, I might add), I have had the luxury of studying this subject in an exclusively female environment. In this setting, I have never been embarrassed to ask a question, hesitant to answer a question, or worried that I might be perceived as less intelligent because of my gender. This is a privilege, though one I may not have fully comprehended until participating in Code Camp. For me, it was a revelation to see how unusual and exciting it was for my fellow Code Campers, brilliant and inspiring women, to learn, discuss, brainstorm, and write code exclusively with other women.

As the week-long program progressed, I began to think about why so much interest and advocacy has been generated around encouraging women to pursue STEM subjects. What was the trigger? Why is Square so invested in the issue that it flew 21 students out to San Francisco and rearranged its executives’ schedules to talk with us? Why has the company gone so far as to create High School Code Camp, a program for female high school students to come to Square twice a week and learn computer science in preparation for the AP exam?

One important reason is statistics. When a significant portion of half the population (i.e., women) opts out of an industry’s workforce, the industry has squandered valuable resources. Any smart company realizes that encouraging women towards STEM fields, and eventually recruiting from that pool, is not just good business, but a potential competitive advantage.

But it’s not just a question of attracting talented workers. Adding diversity to the workforce can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Just as people of different ages and races bring unique perspectives to the table, so too can the inclusion of both genders provide a critical dimension of diversity.

The benefits of diversity extend beyond simply including different perspectives. Imagine a young woman new to the workforce who starts a job as an entry-level programmer. When gender diversity doesn’t extend through leadership at the highest levels, how can she be expected to picture herself as a CEO, a CFO, a COO, or any other C-[insert letter here]-O if she has never seen a woman succeed at the top? While there is much to learn from male leaders, female leaders have their own unique lessons to teach and examples to set. We all benefit when we can learn from a variety of leadership models.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that a woman receive a C-level position because of her gender. In fact, I think that would actually be detrimental to herself, the company’s success, and the reputation of female leaders. As important as diversity in leadership may be, it is also essential that leaders are qualified to do their jobs. In the STEM fields, this requires years of practice. It’s not so much that women consciously opt-out of STEM subjects, but that at an early age, they choose not to opt-in. Females constituted less than 20% of the high school students who took the AP Computer Science exam in 2013. If these patterns persist, we will face slim pickings when it comes to diverse and qualified leadership.

Despite these disheartening numbers, I have a lot of hope for the future of women in computer science. I have not been deluded into thinking that the make-up of the Computer Science department at Wellesley represents the make-up of computer programmers in the real world — though sometimes I do forget that male programmers exist. Rather, what gives me hope are the kindergarteners I work with at a local Boston area school. I help teach basic computer science concepts to these kids using ScratchJr, an educational programming language developed at the MIT Media Lab and Tufts University. I am often astonished at the children’s ability to grasp new ideas, explain concepts to each other, and implement the programs they envision. Watching them makes me optimistic about the future of girls in STEM subjects — at this young age, there is no obvious gender division in skill level, and more importantly, in interest level. I see girls help boys, and I see boys help girls, but more importantly, I do not see any girl choose not to participate because computer science is “for boys,” or because she feels ”less qualified” than the 5-year-old boy across the table.

This program is valuable not only because of the head start these students have in learning to program, but also in the confidence they gain at a young age — confidence that will influence whether they decide to continue their computer science studies; their comfort level in what will likely be male-dominated classrooms; and ultimately, their career choices. It can be intimidating to hear of fellow computer scientists (often males) who began programming their first games when they were in middle school, and had already released multiple mobile apps by the time they were in college. The chance to start learning basic computer science skills on a relatively level playing field, before any gender divisions have developed, is a huge advantage, and one which can provide the confidence boost needed to assure oneself that “I can succeed in an engineering classroom/position/team/etc. as well as anyone else.”

My week at Square was a revelation on many levels. Being at Square allowed us all to go beyond our own stereotypes — we saw that there are all kinds of women who have found a comfortable place for themselves in the STEM fields. And beyond the incredible women, it was encouraging to meet all of the men who were just as passionate about creating a supportive environment for everyone. We could not have felt more welcomed by the people there, and it was clear that our excitement about the program was reciprocated by all the “Squares” we met. We could easily envision making a career at Square, or places like it.

Not only is Square doing the right thing with its Code Camp initiative, it is doing the smart thing — a classic case of doing well by doing good. Tali Marcus - Profile *Fruit lover, @TheMoth listener, and celiac. Follow me @talimarcus.*medium.com Square Code Camp Alumnae stories and experiencesmedium.com