Seven Ways Leah Gilliam and Girls Who Code Are Lowering the Glass Ceiling

By Lauren Giella

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It should come as no surprise that across most career fields, there are major disparities in the opportunities, statuses, and attitudes between men and women (hello! I’m sure we all hear the gender gap more than a few times per week). In some careers, the gap is shrinking, as the number of female employees and their achievements in their fields have greatly improved. In the world of technology and computing, however, the situation has been getting much worse.

The gap in computing has grown since the 1980s: 37 percent of all computer science graduates were women in 1984, while today, only 18 percent are women. By 2020, there will be an estimated 1.4 million jobs in computing related fields. But women are on track to fill just 3 percent of them. Data shows that there is a large drop off in interest for computer programming in girls around ages 13 to 17. So what can be done to solve this problem? 

The staff at Girls Who Code (GWC) has a single goal: to close the gender gap in technology. But they aren’t just talking about it, they are doing something to change it. Since 2012, GWC has established after school clubs and summer enrichment programs in 50 states. Through these programs, GWC has taught 40,000 girls about coding and computer science. That’s the same number of girls who graduate each year with a degree in computer science.

According to Girls Who Code Founder and CEO Reshma Saujani, “when girls learn to code, they become change agents in their communities. Whether it’s a game to illustrate the experience of an undocumented immigrant or a website to provide free college prep, our girls create technology that makes the world a better place.”

Through a dynamic curriculum and supportive learning environment, the experienced staff shows girls their potential in tech careers. One of those very special staffers is Vice President of Education, Innovation and Strategy Leah Gilliam.

Gilliam joined the GWC staff with an already impressive resume of diverse experience and expertise. She received a BA in modern culture and media at Brown University followed by a MFA in film studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She was an associate professor of electronic arts at Bard College, designed a game-based learning public school at New York's Institute of Play, and worked to advance global web literacy as part of Mozilla’s Hive NYC Learning Network. Most recently, she has channeled her lifelong fascination with systems and the way things work into her current role at Girls Who Code.

In an interview with SHE, Gilliam discusses seven ways Girls Who Code is closing the gender gap in the tech world by empowering and educating the next generation of female coders.


1. Gilliam and the staff at GWC know the reality of the gender gap in tech

There is a significant disparity between the number of women and men working in the tech world, and GWC is determined to change that. “It’s a bit grim right now,” said Gilliam. “There are 500,000 open computing jobs in the US and only 40,000 new computer science graduates every year. Of those graduates, only 7,000 are women.” This wasn’t always the case, however. In 1995, 30 percent of the computing workforce was made up of women. Today, women only make up 24 percent. “It’s a dire situation,” said Gilliam. “If we continue at this rate, the percentage of women in the computing workforce will keep going down.”


2. GWC aims to debunk the harmful stereotypes that discourage girls from pursuing computing and coding

Gilliam believes that the gender gap is caused by both structural and cultural problems. A major part of the issue is the cultural misrepresentation that often discourages girls from entering STEM fields. “There is a myth that a computer science person is an unkempt white or Asian man in a basement,” said Gilliam. “It’s not an accurate representation of the diverse people out in the world.”

In terms of changing the culture, GWC empowers girls by connecting what they learn in the classroom with real world coding work. “By giving girls a sense of new role models, they see that computer science is for them. We work with companies to change the narrative of who a computer scientist is and what a computer scientist does. We bring professionals into the classroom, sponsor field trips, and pair girls with female mentors of underrepresented backgrounds and ethnicities. This gives girls a sense of how widely computers science can be used and applied,” said Gilliam.


3. Education and exposure are the keys to solving the structural problem that keeps girls from coding

Despite the importance of technology in driving the economy and the workforce, it is not widely taught in schools. “One in four high schools teach coding and only 28 states allow computer science to count towards graduation credit,” said Gilliam. This extensive structural problem seems daunting, but as their programs expand across the country, GWC is finding a way to remedy it. The fact that these programs are available for middle to high school-aged girls is a step in the right direction.

Beyond providing accessibility, the different teams at GWC work to design a comprehensive and cutting-edge curriculum for young girls.


4. The Education, Innovation, and Research Teams work together to ensure the participants are getting the most out of their experience at GWC

As the Vice President of Strategy, Education and Innovation, Gilliam oversees three different teams.

The Education Team is responsible for building the curriculum for all of the GWC programs based three main ideas Gilliam calls “The Three Cs:” Capability-- making sure girls feel confident working together using computational skills to solve problems; Camaraderie-- fostering a supportive environment where girls are part of a large, diverse team; Career-- providing girls with positive role models in the tech field who are making a difference in the world.

Gilliam describes the Innovation Team as the “heart of [her] work at Girls Who Code.” She uses technology and research to find solutions to problems and create new programs. Finally, Gilliam works with the newly formed Research Team that evaluates the programs. In conjunction with the Innovation Team, the Research Team aims to extract greater understanding from the results of the company’s programs to assess their impact.

Making computer science accessible and relevant in young girls’ lives is a key way to address the structural problem of the gender gap in the tech field.


5. The programs focus on teaching the basics

In order to stay relevant and give girls the best education and training they can, GWC teaches the groundwork of coding. “Since the field is constantly changing, we focus on giving girls the basic computational skills they need to become lifelong learners and teach themselves what they need to know going forward,” said Gilliam. Therefore, the training at GWC goes beyond just coding. “We talk about core principles, like conditional, proofs and functions, that are the basic building blocks of computer science, so the girls can apply them to whatever come next.” Additionally, the curriculum and list of guest speakers are updated every year to include the latest problems and techniques in the tech world and keep the programs relevant.


6. Gilliam uses her previous work experience to foster a positive working environment at GWC

For Gilliam, the most important aspect of GWC is the positive and supportive environment it creates. “I have always been part of diverse teams, so that commitment to a diversity of opinions and skill sets is something we really bake into our work at GWC.” Being part of a bigger group of people pursuing the same passions not only enhances learning, but builds more confidence. “I am self-taught in coding, and didn’t officially learn to write code until my 30s,” said Gilliam. “So when girls can look around a room and see people like them using computer science to solve problems, it grows a sense that it is something they can do.” This combination of knowledge and confidence creates a sisterhood within the classroom. For Gilliam, that sense of community is an essential part of the organization that makes it so effective and empowering. “Coupling computer science and learning with a supportive community is what the girls take away from our programs,” said Gilliam.


7. Gilliam encourages girls to keep learning and growing

Gilliam advises girls to keep seeking out knowledge and discover new interests and abilities. “I tell girls that it is important to stay curious and to have a few things that you are passionate about. Code is a language that is important to know and gives you a lot of flexibility. You are never too young or too old to learn it.”

Leah Gilliam and Girls Who Code are using the latest and greatest methods and tools to close the gender gap in technology. By providing exposure, education, teamwork, and positive role models in the field, GWC is transforming the narrative of who a computer scientist is.

To learn more about the work Girls Who Code is doing and to find programs near you, click here.

To learn more about Leah Gilliam and her story, click here.


Alana Brown