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China education

Closing China’s gender gap: the Beijing school that’s teaching girls to code for free

Only one in five programmers are women, and Beijing-based Coding Garden is hoping to reverse the trend by offering girls a free course in writing code

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 August, 2017, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2017, 11:04pm

Chen Bin, the founder of an online computer skills school for children , recalls vividly the excitement the hiring of a female colleague created among programmers, back in his programming days.

“There were so few of them and everyone was very excited about having a female programmer on the team,” said Chen, who worked as a programmer for Microsoft and then Cisco but quit to sell tea online in 2011. “We would discuss her education background and how competent she was at work,” even though we might not end up working together.

About a year ago, Chen went back to the programming circle, opening Coding Garden, a for-profit school which teaches both boys and girls how to write code. Among its activities is offering a free online coding course for girls.

To Chen’s surprise, the scarcity of female programmers remains unchanged.

There are four times as many male programmers as female, according to a survey by website Codeforge.cn in 2015. This gender disparity reflects a lack of women in the technology industry and computing work generally. In Singapore, 30 per cent of technology industry staff are female while in the US, women hold 26 per cent of computing jobs, techcrunch.com reported.

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Hoping to change the landscape, Chen started offering free online tutorials that taught girls to write code, to bring more women into the industry.

Although he was not a feminist, Chen said he supported the idea of equal opportunities and rights and felt bad for women who sometimes felt the brunt of discrimination.

“What’s better than helping women find a decent, well-paid job to promote women’s status?” Chen asked. “Programmers never worry about finding a job and it is very suitable for women who prefer to work with machines rather than people. The only problem is so few of them apply for the job,” Chen said.

He originally thought of offering tutorials in a classroom in May, but was overwhelmed by the heated response on social media: the announcement had been read and forwarded several million times, especially after several influential voices who promoted female rights on Weibo forwarded the message.

For instance, a relationship columnist, The Queen C-cup, called on parents with daughters to pay attention to the project, to stop them from telling girls they were not as smart as boys or that their strengths lay in the arts rather than sciences.

“The biggest benefit of the programme was to let the girls know at an early age that they can make it. They will be more confident in the future,” she said when forwarding an advertisement for the campaign on her Weibo account.

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Input like this convinced Chen to think bigger with his planned tutorials for girls. “I realised the idea of finding a classroom would not meet the demand, so I found programmers to design a system for those interested in learning it online,” he said.

Two weeks after the Teach Girls Code campaign was started in early July, more than 30,000 people globally have signed up for the programme, producing 40,000 pieces of work in online classroom assignments.

Students have been very serious about learning, too. In the chat room, students are growing together by asking questions and offering advice via more than 40,000 posts.

An internet user who did not leave her real name said taking the course put purpose back in her life and would enhance her self-esteem.

“For some reason I regrettably didn’t go to college like others and have been doing jobs that have no technical barrier so that anyone can replace me. I feel I ought to learn something,” wrote a woman who signed up for the course.

“I am just having a try here. It will be good if I master it, and I won’t regret it if I don’t. I have something to look forward to now and this will prove I can [achieve something],” she wrote.

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Another woman who used to major in computer science in school but worked in media after graduation said writing code filled her with hope.

“I used to think writing code is fun and that’s it. Now I have picked it up again and it means I didn’t give up the hope of changing my life. I am still trying to be in control of my life,” she wrote.

Shi Yanjuan, 27, a programmer and Beijing web page designer for the past four years , said she was one of two women out of 53 female classmates who still worked as a programmer.

“We realised the trade is dominantly male and working overtime is very frequent. It scares some off,” Shi said. “Others just don’t like to face computers all day. They don’t think it will be a job for a woman after they get married or have children.”

Shi said she took the job for the challenge: writing code is simultaneously creative and demanding. “Sometimes I sat there to think of a solution and one day passed,” she said. “There are always new things to learn and try every year.”

The biggest challenge for a female programmer is being perhaps the only one in the company, Shi said. She was self-conscious and uncomfortable with her status for some time but eventually accepted it.

“I guess as a woman we are more at ease when there are other women around,” Shi said.

A 22-year-old woman in Beijing who is following the free online course and calls herself YB, said she majored in landscape design in university and became interested in coding after learning some young designers have developing programmes in design and publish their work online.

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“I am unwilling to be a designer who only knows how to make drawings,” Shi said. “Writing code is so much fun. In a practical sense, I won’t worry about unemployment.”

After signing up, girls are led to a platform where a robot teaches them how to write code in different “languages”. The course is diverse and covers most of the work a programmer does,according to Chen.

“Contrary to what people think, writing code is not difficult, at all. A woman can train herself for half a year and find an entry-level programmer job in the IT industry,” Chen said.

He is also using his industry connections to help those who wish to start a programming career find jobs as interns.

Although the programme was designed for girls aged 14 and above, nearly 90 per cent of those who signed up were between 15 and 25. “I hope eventually 3,000 women students can eventually enter the IT industry as a programmer,” Chen said.

He said the course aims to help women find their footing in the industry; but as with any career, they need to learn and grow to advance. Online tutorials can hook interest, but these participants also need to read books to go deep in learning, Chen said.

“I think for ages, girls have been told to find a job with stability, and the most important thing is to marry well. They are told not to take risks. They often go for jobs like teachers and public servants, but it’s time to start a new frontier,” Chen said.