In a conference room on the ninth floor of the futuristic-looking IAC building on Manhattan's far West Side, a hive of teenage girls were buzzing in conversation recently. But they weren't talking about fashion or Justin Bieber. Instead, if you listen in, you'd overhear snippets like this: "My interest is robotics—I'm curious how a stoplight or an ATM works," said Martha Ghose, a Bangladeshi girl from Manhattan, or, "I want to create new medical devices," said Sondos Alnajjar from Jordan.
These are Girls Who Code and their newest friends, the TechGirls.
Girls Who Code is an eight-week summer enrichment and mentoring program for teenage girls interested in web design, robotics, and mobile development. The program was started in New York City and is happening in six cities this summer. On this day, the NYC group is playing host to a program sponsored by the State Department that has brought 24 teens to the U.S. from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Algeria for very similar purposes.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton created the TechGirls program on July 6, 2011 "to encourage innovation and promote the spread of new technologies to give women and girls the support that they need to become leaders in this field." It's a junior version of TechWomen, a mentoring program that pairs Middle Eastern participants with American women leaders in the technology sector. During their time in D.C. and New York, the TechGirls this summer are visiting companies like Google and nonprofits like Do Something, as well as networking with their counterparts at Girls Who Code.
Some of the TechGirls are wearing hijabs, while others are dressed more secularly. The New York City group doesn't lack for diversity, either; participants come from all five boroughs and have roots in South Asia, East Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa. But no one in this very unusual group is dwelling on her minority status—as a woman, as a woman of color, or as a woman of color who aspires to a career in tech. In conversation, the teens gravitated instead toward what brings them together, their shared love of technology. "It changes every day, there's always something new," Ghose told Fast Company. "You can learn it on your own, without anyone teaching you," said a girl in a headscarf from Algeria. Nada, from Egypt, boasts, "You can stay in touch with friends and family, even if you leave the country." Joanna Arida, a 15-year-old from Amman, puts forth a dissenting opinion: "Technology is our new gods," she said. "We need to be careful. You always see kids like this"—she holds up her phone—"with their heads down, texting."
Listening to these poised and ambitious young women compare notes on the International Baccalaureate versus AP exams, it seems that one key to reaching gender parity in science and engineering fields is to create networks of near-peer role models. That is, it's not the solitary lady astronaut, but the friend just one year ahead of you who has created a really cool app, that makes you think you can do the same. Accordingly, both of these groups stress the idea of giving back. Last year's TechGirls have gotten involved in teaching technology skills to other kids, and speaking in forums like TEDxYouth and TEDxAmman.
[Image: Flickr user United States Mission Geneva]