GIRLsmarts Tackles Gender Disparity in Tech with Help of SAP

As a matter of necessity, Vancouverites know what to do with rainy afternoons.And on the rather sodden Saturday February 15, a platoon of volunteers converged at Yaletown’s SAP facility to present the first corporately hosted GIRLsmarts workshop.

It was also the first GIRLsmarts workshop for grade seven students; the day’s events provided the girls with hands-on coaching through basic programming, sound mixing, game design, and the basics of UI design. The day was closed by a visit from Amy Leson, one of the members of the UBC Thunderbots team, who brought her soccer-playing robots.

Since 2004, GIRLsmarts has been providing preteen girls with hands-on experience working in technology. The world of tech is a very different place than it was 10 years ago, but not as different as it would have to be to have no further need of the program.

Gender disparity in the tech industry is something that has regrettably endured. According to the most recent findings of the Informations and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), women account for 25% of the workforce and 25.1% of current undergraduate and graduate students. On a smaller scale, the numbers diminish further: the Entertainment Software Association of Canada found that women were only 16% of all workers in the Canadian video game industry.

But if the energy of the kids inside were anything to by, those numbers will be on the rise. Aman Rosode, one of the event’s volunteers, speaks highly of his charges’ ambitions.

“They don’t want to stay in the basics,” Rosode says. “We show them how to change a sprite, and they want to know much more. They’ll go about it themselves—they’re eager to learn, eager to do it, and it’s awesome.”

It might seem obvious, but GIRLsmarts’ dedication to increasing diversity in the tech workplace goes beyond simply increasing women’s numbers. There are three events held each year: two for grade six students, and now one for those in grade seven. The two events for sixth graders are differentiated by their venues; one is hosted at UBC’s Point Grey campus, while the other venue is the UBC Learning Exchange in Chinatown.

In order to reach underprivileged girls, registration for Eastside youth begins a full two weeks before girls from the rest of the Lower Mainland can attend. The registration fee is $25—enough to indicate value, but not so much as to discourage potential applicants. Michele Ng, a special events coordinator who oversees the program, speaks fervently of the need for the event.

“Statistically, we have less girls interested in computers and computer science. We have to find some way to interest girls, because boys, they just glom onto it because of games and because of the fact that they find it fun to be figuring this kind of stuff out. They see it as a toy,” she says.

“Girls are interested in other things—they’re more social, they have broader interests. And so gaming remained a male-dominated field, and girls were less interested in it. And that’s why we have to design programs that will also excite them about the possibility and the potential of technology, and the potential to do it,” she continued.

This event had been in development since 2012, when Ng made contact with a representative from SAP to conceive the Grade 7 event. The following summer, the organizing began, with the development of the curriculum kicking in in September. 120 volunteers in all came together, from SAP and UBC, to make it happen. It wasn’t easy, though it can’t be said that ease has ever been a factor.

“I think the biggest challenge initially was making sure that all kinds of girls get a chance to get in this workshop. We actually can only do it two, at most three times a year, and we’d like more girls to be able to experience this workshop, which is why we’re beginning to partner with industry, like SAP. It was totally serendipity … SAP was able to recruit, with UBC, 120 volunteers to work on this workshop and build it from scratch,” she says.

Youth tech events abound in Vancouver: this Friday, TechUpKids will be hosting a workshop for Scratch for kids between the ages of eight and 13. And older children can investigate TechTrek, a monthly Saturday workshop which serves as UBC’s programme for high school boys and girls; the next TechTrek is on March 1st, with guest speakers from Pixar to visit.

GIRLsmarts stands apart as a workshop strictly for preteen girls. But with corporate partners like SAP, it does not stand alone.