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Emerging from this pandemic stronger means investing in girls now

The founder and CEO of Girls Who Code explains how COVID-19 is exacerbating inequality—and how we can make sure we don’t lose momentum on inclusion efforts.

Emerging from this pandemic stronger means investing in girls now
[Photo: Flickr user Governor Tom Wolf]

Women are the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. We make up the majority of healthcare workers globally. We are innovating on ways to digitally track the pandemic. We are leading nations with the best responses to the virus. 

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It’s a cruel irony then that our girls—the next generation of heroes—risk bearing the brunt of this crisis and might come out of this worse off than the generation of women before them. 

We know by now that COVID-19 is exacerbating inequalities in our society. But this pandemic has left our girls—especially—with less time and space to learn, grow, and dream. They suffer higher rates of social isolation as a result of distance learning, make up the majority of the 1.4 million children who currently have caregiving responsibilities (more than 75% of caregivers are female), and—particularly in marginalized communities—are less likely to have access to quality health services, like sexual and reproductive healthcare. 

We refuse to leave them behind, to lose progress on closing the gender gap in tech, and by extension issues like pay equity and closing the leadership gap.”

I see it with the girls in my own programs at Girls Who Code—half of whom are black, Latinx, or low-income. Some of them are dialing into class from homeless shelters, others logging onto Zoom via Wi-Fi at their local Burger King, or doing homework while caring for sick grandparents. 

Organizations like ours are innovating at a breakneck pace to serve these girls, to make education accessible to them. We refuse to leave them behind, to lose progress on closing the gender gap in tech, and by extension issues like pay equity and closing the leadership gap. 

While the gender gap in tech has been stubborn, in recent years, the overall number of female computer science graduates has been rising. Girls Who Code alone has reached 300,000 girls and has 80,000 program alumni in college. They are majoring in computer science at a rate of 15 times the national average. We’ve seen real progress in this space, just as we have in other traditionally male-dominated spaces. Take, for instance, the recent announcement that 36 companies on the Fortune 500 are led by women. A small number and a marginal increase from the year before, but an all-time high nonetheless. 

This is not a time to take our foot off the gas. We can’t afford to lose momentum in our work to advance women and girls, especially not when one of the surest outcomes of the pandemic is the rapid acceleration of innovation in tech. That acceleration is positioning the industry for explosive growth on the other side of the crisis.

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In the coming months and years, jobs in telehealth, digital learning, online payment, robotic deliveries, virtual reality, cloud computing, and more will be ripe for the taking. Already, demand for cybersecurity engineers are up 20%. In the past two months, U.S. cities have seen an increase in open tech jobs—Raleigh saw an increase of 28%, San Diego 23%. And forecasts estimate that telehealth, an industry full of tech jobs, is expected to see 80% growth by the end of the year. If we seize on this opportunity to invest in our girls, we can make sure they are in a position to reap the benefits of a recovering economy. 

I’ve been heartened by companies like Microsoft that have supported our groundbreaking work, while also doubling down on internal diversity initiatives in the midst of a crisis—like finding creative solutions to retain and support their most diverse intern class to date. I’m encouraged by the ideas from public servants like FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel about how to close the digital divide among students. And I’m inspired by grassroots support of our girls. Since the start of COVID-19, thousands have accessed our virtual resources to run virtual coding sessions at home. 

We need all this and more—funding, innovation, research, time—from public and private sectors. Before this pandemic, only 1.6% of Americans’ charitable giving went toward nonprofits helping women and girls. It’s my hope that we see that number go up, not down. 

Our girls are more than ready for the opportunities ahead. At Girls Who Code, we’re seeing thousands of applications for our summer programs. For our inaugural virtual talk series about the state of tech jobs, nearly 1,000 young women registered. And in the two months since we’ve released our Code at Home activities, millions of young women have engaged with them. 

In truth, there’s never been a better time to invest in girls. Some of our biggest acts of innovation and courage come in times of crisis. We make the most of the least, the best of the worst. 

Just think of Joan Clarke, who decoded enemy documents during World War II. Or Katherine Johnson, whose calculations helped Project Mercury land safely. Or Flossie Wong-Staal who—in the middle of the AIDS epidemic—genetically mapped the HIV virus to prove it’s link with AIDS. 

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You don’t have to go running to the history books to find these stories either. Last month, Karina Popovich, a Girls Who Code alum and freshman at Cornell, saw the devastating shortage of personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers. So she started a global coalition to 3D-print PPE. That coalition, Makers for COVID-19, has printed more than 22,000 units of PPE. 

Women are the heroes of this pandemic. And given the chance, our girls will grow up to be heroes of the next one or—better yet—they’ll prevent it entirely. 


Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, the international nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. She is the author of the international bestseller Brave, Not Perfect and the New York Times bestseller Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World. 

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