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Leah Gilliam

VP, Girls Who Code

The 2010 Toyota Sienna—a cheerful minivan preferred by families—was once America’s safest car. It had a coveted four-star safety rating, particularly when it came to protecting passengers sitting up front. But then, in 2012, its ratings plummeted.

“Turns out the team who invented the airbag was entirely male,” explains Leah Gilliam, vice president of strategy and innovation at Girls Who Code (GWC). “An all male team designed airbags for male bodies, and they were too big for women.”

Until a government mandate that required the use of female dummies in crash tests, no one tested the efficacy of airbags for women or children. It was a closed loop dominated by white men—a dearth of diversity that continues to plague our technology.

“The scariest part is that the number of women working in the computing workforce is actually declining,” Gilliam continues. “We did some great research with our partner Accenture, and it’s declined from 24% in 1995 to 22% today.”

Gilliam isn’t alone in her concern; a similar sentiment was expressed by scientist Piraye Beim just last week. And it’s why GWC is hellbent on teaching computer science to teenage girls—for free.

Closing the gender gap in technology

What is Girls Who Code?
“Girls Who Code is a national non-profit focused on closing the gender gap in technology. We teach computer science to women, particularly young women of color, in hopes of exposing them to the career path… I understand what it’s like to come from a school and a community where computational thinking isn’t part of the curriculum—I had to teach myself how to code. But considering that’s where all the jobs are, tech really should be a bigger part of education.”

Who are your students?
“We work with girls ages 13-18 from different racial and ethnic backgrounds—African American, Black, Latina. They’re from communities where they may not have had access to a computer, let alone to computer science. But we also target girls from more privileged backgrounds in an effort to make sure we’re creating the kinds of diverse, well-rounded teams our students will hopefully encounter in the workforce. Our goal is really to make the field feel inclusive.”

The basics.

We work with girls ages 13-18 from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Tell us about your courses.
We have two programs: an after school club and an immersive summer program for 10th and 11th graders. The immersive is a deep dive into computer science… all day everyday for seven weeks. And not only do the girls get a sense of all the key ideas in computer science and computational thinking, but they also build their own project or app. We hold the courses in the offices of leading tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook. Simply exposing the students to that kind of workplace is one of the most powerful aspects of our work.”

And the club program?
“It takes a radically different approach. This program is open to younger girls, starting in 6th grade, and meets for two hours either after school or on weekends. The club really focuses on teaching the Core4 concepts of computer science: loops, variables, functions and conditionals. It’s also great because the teachers are local educators and professionals in their community. We’re currently in 42 states, but are hoping for 50 by the end of this year.”

If your students could take away only one thing from GWC, what would it be?
“That there’s a historical precedent of women and people of color working in computer science, math and technology. I think a lot of people experience a sort of imposter syndrome if they’re not a white male. But there is a history of all kinds of people working in these fields… And we need more if we’re going to develop products for a broad set of problems.”

Closing The Gender Gap.

We also hold the courses in the offices of leading tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook.”

What is success for GWC?
“We measure success in the number of women who go on to pursue computer science in college. And we’re still a relatively young organization—our oldest of our 12,200 alums are currently seniors in college. But 90% of the girls who have participated in our immersive program say they intend to either major or minor in computer science. For our after school program, that number is still over 65%.”

Do you have a favorite project created by your students?
“Two girls from our 2014 summer immersive, Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser, built a game called Tampon Run—you can actually download it from the app store. It’s an endless running video game where the player throws tampons at enemies. And the reason it’s so funny, why I think it’s so successful, is that we have hundreds of video games wherein people violently shoot guns, but we’re still afraid of tampons. I was humbled to see these young teenage girls using computer science to break down some of the taboo around menstruation.”

For more from our All Female issue, check out how Leslie Voorhees is disrupting the wedding dress industry.


We have hundreds of video games wherein people violently shoot guns, but we're still afraid of tampons.”


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