In the latest instalment of our #WomenInTechQA series, and as part of our #WomenInTechWeek, we caught up with Helene Virolan and Avye Couloute, Director and Founder of Girls Into Coding, as well as mother and daughter duo, to talk about their amazing initiative, and what they predict for the future of women in tech.
Helene and Avye discuss what businesses and the wider community can do to increase the involvement of girls in tech and why it is important to fix the gender imbalance in the industry.
Third Republic (TR): Avye, you're 12 years old, and you've been coding since you were about seven. Could you talk a bit about how you got into coding at such a young age, and some of the work you've done, up until this point?
Avye Couloute (AC): I started out by going to a coding club, and at that club I was introduced to a basic language, such as Scratch; it was programming language and from there I started attending an organization called CoderDojo. I attended their workshops, where I got introduced to the micro bear and different electronic components that could be programmed with it, and I thought that they were really fun as they were hands on, as well as being able to code in the sessions. After attending quite a few CoderDojo workshops, I gradually started to run them alongside someone else, and then eventually I found I was able to run them all by myself.
I really enjoy making robots and it's really fun to visually see something, rather than just seeing it on your screen, and it doesn't always have to be robots necessarily, there are an endless amount of projects you can do, which involve different electronic components and programming. So far I've been working on different projects, designing, and basically planning my future workshops. Regarding the recent situation, we're also developing a kit, which will be embedded into some of the workshops that we're going to be providing to the wider public.
TR: You mentioned that you both founded Girls Into Coding together, could you talk a bit about the initiative and the vision behind starting the project?
AC: When I was leading my coding and robotics workshops at community events, I noticed that the majority of the attendees were boys, and on some occasions, no girls would attend at all. So I decided to organise an event where girls would be invited, and they would have the opportunity to explore physical computing and robotics, in a supportive environment. I wanted to demystify robotics and show girls that it's not something out of their reach. Robotics, for me, is really engaging and fascinating, and yet to design, create, build and code, it's a whole new experience, it's so much fun to see your project in action. I feel like the girls at my event really enjoy it, especially once they feel a sense of achievement from completing the workshop.
As well as creating opportunities for girls to develop their skills and knowledge, I wanted them to be able to continue their interest at home and beyond. Two years ago, I started a fundraising campaign to provide girls with microcontrollers, physical computing kits, and STEM themed books and through sharing our story on social media, writing blogs and articles, we went on to gain the support of Microsoft, which allowed us to further continue our mission.
Helene Virolan (HV): There is only so much we can do on a voluntary basis. That's why I decided to fully commit to the organisation and to join Avye in this endeavor.
At the beginning of this year, we set up Girls Into Coding as a community interest company, we want to be among those who are working towards bridging the gender gap that is in STEM. We aim to encourage more girls to get involved in physical computing, robotics and coding workshops, and we want those girls to engage with other girls, and also with women in STEM who are already working in the industry. We want them to be challenged and to have fun in the process. Our workshops are aimed at girls from 10 to 14 years old, they are free to attend, thanks to the support of the wider community, and we provide these events for free to girls because we believe that all girls should feel empowered to access opportunities to learn how to code.
Girls and women are underrepresented in STEM, or the tech industry, and it's really time to work on fixing that imbalance, not just because it's the right thing to do, or because girls deserve the same opportunities as boys, but because the world needs science and technology now more than ever, to fix problems and to offer solutions.
TR: Why do you think girls are less likely to get into tech? Do you think that a lack of potential female role models does play a part in that?
HV: I would say between the age of five and six, usually, boys and girls have the same interest in STEM. However, by the age of nine, a significant gap starts to emerge, and the girls interested in STEM start to drop. While this continues, women remain underrepresented in that industry. Tech is often seen as a ‘boy thing’, and not enough visible female role models are put into the limelight. We think that the media need to help by showing girls who are doing cool things in STEM, because it's important for other girls to see those girls, and as Ayve said earlier, you can't be what you can't see, so it's really important to have that visibility.
TR: How do you think both businesses and communities can encourage more people into tech?
AC: I think businesses and communities can support organizations that are working to create opportunities for girls to get involved in STEM activities, by highlighting some of the achievements of female role models who are already out there in the tech world.
HV: There should be more workshops that highlight the range of high tech jobs that are out there for women, to encourage girls to consider careers in the tech industry and to show them that technology can be fun. Businesses and communities can encourage the participation of girls in tech programs, or in tech competitions, and this can be in school or outside of school. Something that is very important as well for the communities to provide is mentorship, it's important for the girls to have mentors, for them to receive advice from them and guidance. It's really something that is needed.
To watch the rest of the interview, and to find out what Helene and Ayve predict for the future of women in tech, click here.