Women IT coders inspire young Hong Kong girls to follow in their footsteps

F or all of IT's hip modernity, programming is a male-dominated realm. Now HK female coders are encouraging more girls to follow their lead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 10:58pm

Priyanka Kogta has already decided her future. The 16-year-old will study computer science at a "US, Canadian or Hong Kong" university, learn to code and land a job at Google. The reason? "Because technology is going to take over the world one day, and programming is the basics," she said.

Kogta is not alone in her ambition, but she is unusual for her gender. In 2008, a group of female Google engineers in Israel decided to tackle this disparity with an initiative called Mind The Gap, organising trips to the Google HQ for young girls and encouraging them to pursue more typically right-brain subjects as maths, science and technology. Twitter followed suit with its Women in Engineering group, saying "we want there to be more women who pursue careers in this field". And in 2010, Reshma Saujani, a former New York hedge fund lawyer who ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully, founded Girls Can Code, a now global movement sponsored by Twitter, Google and eBay that runs workshops aiming at getting girls hooked on programming.

The initiative arrived in Hong Kong last weekend, in partnership with the Women's Entrepreneurs Online team, also a Google pursuit. At an "app jamming" session in Tin Hau, Kogta and 30 other girls gave up their Saturday to learn the languages of fallen-over "Vs", where a misplaced comma can bring a website down.

The workshop was structured on a curriculum developed for Stanford University and taught by Michelle Sun, a former Goldman Sachs banker who was a student at one of the first-ever women-only programming boot camps in San Francisco.

"I always liked maths and science, but the thought never crossed my mind to study computer science," the University of Chicago economics graduate said. "It was only when I started working with firms like 10 Cent and Alibaba at Goldman that I realised how technology could change people's lives."

Of the 30 young girls from schools around Hong Kong learning to code at Sun's event, most are studying technology - even if they remain in a gender minority in the classroom. Minnie Yip Ming-yuen, a 15-year-old pupil at the Diocesan Girls School, for whom mastering languages like CSS and Java could be as important as being fluent in Mandarin in the job market, has taken programming lessons at school. She believes it is becoming less surprising for women to be interested in coding. "I would love to make an app that changes people's lives," she says.

While the apps created at Girls Can Code events are basic - for example, the morning was spent on an app that lets a user pat a kitten on the head - Sun, a self-taught coder, says the idea of such events is to inspire girls to look for resources elsewhere so they don't fall behind their male counterparts who are historically more prone to spend free time in front of a computer screen.

In his Ted Talk, MIT Media lab professor Mitch Resnick urged children and young adults to move from being mere users of technology to become creators.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made learning to code his 2012 new year's resolution, in Estonia all first-graders are taught programming, while in Britain, the debate over whether Java should join maths on the syllabus still rages.

But information technology remains a male-dominated field. Two-thirds of all engineering jobs in the United States today are filled by men. Women account for just 6 per cent of chief executives in the top 100 US tech companies but make up 31 per cent of the IT workforce.

Resnick highlights the wealth of free learning resources. One programme geared towards engaging women is called Girl, Develop It, a non-profit organisation with online workshops in Java, PHP, Ruby and Rails, Phython and Android; while Code School, Treehouse and Computer Clubhouse are less gender-specific resources, Black Girls Code targets African-American women.

Kary Ho, a web developer at a digital marketing start-up in Hong Kong who is fluent in XHTML, CSS, jQuery, ajax and PHP, says the desire to find and utilise such resources is the mark of a good coder. "Learning from the internet is almost a must for programmers, one to three hours per day, at least, even once you're qualified." Ho studied computer engineering at the Institution of Vocational Education in Sha Tin where, she says, her course of 40 had just three other girls.

She believes the lone nature of the job can put women off.

"Programmers always work on their own, even when in a team," Ho said. "They work without any social communication and rely on documents or instruction guides to study and understand their work. Women tend to want to interact more."

Despite this, Adriana Gascoigne believes women can thrive in such roles. The former Los Angeles advertising executive founded Women In Tech in 2007, while working for a YouTube-esqe start-up called GUBA. What began as a regular event in San Francisco now has 38 chapters around the world from Kuwait to Japan, with 9,000 members.

Gascoigne's events aim to connect like-minded women. "The best products are built by teams made of diverse sets of individuals," she said. "Men have dominated to date because tech companies have not done a good job of making recruitment of women a priority. There are few female role models to show the younger generation the ropes."

While role models are scarce, Jennifer Barba, founder of an online resource for making beauty appointments in Hong Kong, says they are out there. She cites Natalie Massenet, founder of online shopping site Net-a-Porter, as her inspiration.

Sun agrees. She holds up Marissa Mayer as proof of female potential. Now chief executive of Yahoo, Mayer was the first woman engineer hired at Google in 1999 and the brain behind the crisp look of the famous search bar. "When you think about how many people use that search bar every day, it's mind blowing. What a beautiful design."