How Black Girls Code Is Getting to One Million

At Black Girls Code events, girls can connect with other girls and not "feel like a weirdo" for wanting to code.

It’s late Sunday morning after a long weekend of coding, and four computer programmers are rushing to link up their mockups in one master file. They’re facing a hard 2:00 PM deadline. But these four aren’t just any computer programmers: they’re teenagers, and they’ve just spent the weekend learning how to code in a whirlwind of workshops, brainstorming sessions, and hacking at the Black Girls Code hackathon in Brooklyn, New York. Two mentors in pink shirts with the hashtag #changeherpath are helping the four girls design their app, which would help teens who feel discriminated against because of their weight, sexual orientation, religion, or socioeconomic status.

The weekend-long hackathon aimed to teach girls between the ages of 11 and 17 how to use tech to make the world a better place and how to take an idea from start to finish, says New York chapter lead Onyi Nwosu. She hopes that, along the way, participants were inspired to consider pursuing a career in computing or technology.

Currently, women comprise only 27 percent of employees in computer and mathematical occupations, and only 17 percent of computer science grads. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that, by 2020, 1.4 million new computer specialist jobs will open up, but, if current trends continue, there will only be enough computer science graduates to fill about 30 percent of those positions. Programs like Black Girls Code aim to get a more diverse generation of coders into those jobs.

Founded in 2011 in the Bay Area by electrical engineer and biotech professional Kimberly Bryant, Black Girls Code was one of the first in what is a growing cadre, including the Ada Developers Academy, Yes We Code, Girls Who Code, and others that aim to inspire young people from more diverse communities to pursue careers in computer science. The organization gets its funding from a patchwork of sources, including individual donors, foundations and corporate sponsors, and two big crowdfunding campaigns. With over $1,000,000 this year alone, the organization has spread rapidly all over the country, hosting workshops, hackathons, and summer camps for girls in Oakland, New York City, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere. About 3,000 girls participate in the programs each year, many of them repeats from previous years, and founder Kimberly Bryant hopes to teach 1,000,000 girls how to code by 2040.

Onyi Nwosu, of Black Girls Code, says she works in tech and never experienced explicit bias—but, “when you’re in an engineering class and you’re the only woman, it makes you question whether or not you belong.”

That’s why she started volunteering for Black Girls Code. She says, at Black Girls Code events, girls “are able to meet other girls like them so they don’t feel like a weirdo for liking to code.” The community and support girls find at these events can help them stay in tech when the going gets rough. “For girls, there are a lot of discouragements along the way, but, if they have a community, they’re more likely to keep at it.”

So Black Girls Code and programs like it aim to address the issue of stereotype threat—the notion that girls stay away from tech because they believe they won’t be good at it, or because they believe others won’t think they’re good at it. Even one-day and weekend-long events can help tackle these issues by providing role models and by giving girls concrete skills and a sense of accomplishment, says Catherine Hill, vice president of research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). A weekend isn’t much time, she says, but “it is enough to bring those stereotypes to your consciousness so that you are aware of them.” Once people are aware of their stereotypes, she says, they have the opportunity to question and challenge them. Furthermore, she adds, participants at these events “learn that they can learn computing. By setting up girls to succeed on small tasks, they develop confidence in their ability to learn computing skills.”

“Black Girls Code was founded to redefine [the] dominant narrative, to shift this paradigm, to make a radical and fundamental and lasting change in the technology industry,” Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, said in remarks at Personal Democracy Forum 2013.

And the organization is starting to have an impact on the broader world. Brianna Fugate, a sophomore majoring in computer science at Spelman College, first encountered coding while volunteering at a Black Girls Code Build a Website in a Day event. “After my volunteer experience with BGC, I was eager to soak up as much knowledge about coding and computer science,” she writesI now see myself as a future tech leader and problem-solver.” She is currently a White House intern in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Another Black Girls Code alumna, Kaya Thomas, also a college sophomore studying computer science—she’s at Dartmouth—created the iPhone application “We Read Too,” which features children and young adult books written by and about people of color. And fifteen-year-old Ayanna Kai Morton, who’s been attending Black Girls Code summer camps since she was 10 years old, won a trip to Berlin this spring to attend the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Summit.

These stories are hopeful—but Catherine Hill, of the AAUW, says obstacles remain. Résumé studies, which involve sending out résumés identical in all particulars except the gender of the candidate’s name, have shown that hiring managers tend to rank more highly résumés involving male-identified skills when the heading shows a male-gendered name. Some tech companies, like Google, have tried to solve that problem by deleting names from résumés before giving them out, but not every tech company has the resources or desire to add that extra step. Furthermore, Hill adds, women sometimes feel out of place in what she calls tech’s “bro culture,” and there are higher rates of sexual harassment in tech than on average.

“We have to admit that there are huge, systemic problems,” says John Enyame, who’s been volunteering at Black Girls Code events in New York for the past year and a half. This weekend, he’s mentoring a group of four girls between the ages of 11 and 13 as they design what he describes as a “positivity” app. “We are adding to a body of approaches to create a new normal for the next generation,” he says.

As Enyame speaks, the girls on his team run by with their other mentor. “We’re going to play the energy game,” they call out to him, practically bouncing up and down.

Enyame explains that, when the girls in his group get restless, they sometimes leave their classroom and computers behind and go to another space to brainstorm new ways to tackle a problem.

The payoff of all this work, Enyame says, is still in the future. “The same way systemic and implicit bias have built over time, the results we are going to see will happen incrementally over time,” he says.

Catherine Hill, of the AAUW, is hopeful. “One of the exciting things is we really can make a difference,” she says. “There’s a lot more we can do to help people choose careers. What we do now is limited, and we need to give students an opportunity to try things out, because women are likely to assume that they can’t do something much too quickly. Engineering and computing is not for everybody, but engineers and computer scientists are made, not born. And we need to provide those opportunities and recruit women for those opportunities, and I think what we’re going to find is a richer and more diverse workplace.”

Eilís O’Neill is a bilingual radio and print reporter. Follow Eilís on Twitter @eilis_oneill