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Why Girls, Safe Spaces and Coding Can Close the Gender Gap in Technology -- and Drive Equality

05/11/2015 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

The conversations about gender diversity and gender equality in technology have become even more animated given the events of the past year. Incidents at technology conferences, the suit by Ellen Pao, and Gamergate -- to name just a few -- have brought into stark relief the situation of women and other under-represented groups in technology.

When discussing such issues, we see two broad arguments emerging. The first issue is often the business case for diversity. Numerous studies have shown that teams are more productive if they are diverse, companies are more profitable if their leadership and management is diverse, companies are more innovative when they are diverse, and companies do better during crises when their senior leadership and boards are diverse. The business case should be clear.

The second broad argument comes down to fairness and justice. Many people assert that the technology industry is a meritocracy and that there is no discrimination in technology - all the women who want to be in the field can be in it. However, if one looks at the many major incidents noted above, and then consider the minor incidents that happen day in and day out to women and other individuals from under-represented groups, that assertion is simply untrue. The existence of micro-aggressions and unconscious bias, for example, makes the path to success in technology for these individuals -- like us -- an obstacle course with no clear map.

Technology in general and software in particular are, in the words of Marc Andresson, "eating the world". Since both women and men use and buy technology and software products and services, they should participate equally in its creation. Unintended gender bias results in products and services that don't adequately meet the needs of all consumers. Expanding the pool of designers and creators is a low cost approach to creating products that better meet the needs of their users.

Currently, the technology industry does not reflect the demographics of the population. The issues with this representation relate to both the pipeline of individuals joining and preparing to join the technology industry and the retention of individuals once they begin a technology career. We must address both of these issues to have any sustained impact on the overall technology workforce.

One approach that addresses both issues is creating safe spaces for women and girls to learn, mentor, create, and experiment with new ideas. We are seeing an increasing number of organizations and events, such as Black Girls Code, Technovation, CodeChix, Girls Who Code, Women Who Code, PyLadies, WoFOSS and many others that provide opportunities for women and girls to create technology, support each other and learn about new technologies.

As an example, last February, more than 70 girls in five international cities participated in the IGNITE International Girls Hackathon, a project of Global Fund for Women. During the Hackathon, girl coders worked in teams to create a new website or application that could increase girls' access to safe spaces in their communities (both online and physical).

ThoughtWorks joined the hackathon in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Altogether, 15 young girls aged 11 to 23 years developed four applications over the 24 hours of coding.

Four proposals were developed, such as CooperaDona, a women-only social network that allows users to offer and exchange job skills trainings and to encourage knowledge-exchange and foster entrepreneurship.

Girls had complete freedom to say everything they thought. On the first day, there was a quick lecture on how women are treated in society and how black women in particular end up facing extra barriers. They felt comfortable sharing personal stories of things that happened in schools, groups of friends, and on the street. The primary goal was to create a safe environment of creativity, learning, and sharing.

Four Brazilian girls are the overall winners of the 2015 IGNITE International Girls Hackathon with the app and social networking tool Não Me Calo (I Will Not Shut Up). It allows users rank restaurants and bars based on levels of safety for women. What makes Não Me Calo unique is the ability of creating awareness of safe places while generating concrete feedback for venue owners, and data to fuel political change.

Initiatives like the IGNITE Hackathon remind us of the true power of technology, showing the girls how to use technology to solve their own problems. The sense of ownership and accomplishment was clear during the event, as well as the willingness to learn more.

These hackathons often focus on doing things to improve society, and not just to create a new, cool app. For example, a previous hackathon created an initial prototype of an application that is now used in the Ebola treatment centre (ETC) in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone.

Hackathons alone cannot overcome the barriers women and girls face when looking towards a career in technology. However, these activities and others provide an environment in which to learn, experiment and create new solutions to real problems, while also providing the support and mentoring to cope with the challenges faced in their daily work. These hackathons provide a glimpse of an environment we can create for women to thrive.

This blog post is the fifth in a series focused on elevating the stories and issues highlighted in IGNITE: Women Fueling Science and Technology, a global campaign and media project from Global Fund for Women that explores the roles of science and technology in advancing gender equality. ThoughtWorks led and hosted the Porto Alegre, Brazil location of the IGNITE International Girls Hackathon which took place in February 2015. Global Fund for Women is a grantmaker and global advocate for women's human rights.

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