Closing the gender gap in STEM means a better future for all.
By Sheila Lam, she/her
Innovation, economy, quality of life—women's representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has consistently and historically pushed our society forward. From techniques that led to the development of the HIV drug (Gertrude B. Elion) to the discovery of spinning neutron stars (Jocelyn Bell Burnell), women have changed the world. With a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering, multiple published articles, and nearly a decade of experience as an educator of computer science, Jackie Blizzard-Caron is playing her own part in changing the future.
Full of energy, passion, and enthusiasm Blizzard-Caron has been in charge of the curriculum and instruction at Girls Who Code since 2017. An international non-profit organization founded in 2012, Girls Who Code continues to expand access to STEM education for young women from historically underrepresented groups between grade school through college. Today, they've helped over 500,000 girls, women, and non-binary participants close the gender gap in tech.
"I definitely experienced some of that imposter syndrome my first year in engineering school," Blizzard-Caron begins to tell me. "I felt a little out of place but also thought there was value that I could bring because there were important problems that I wanted to solve that my male peers didn't necessarily care about."
Despite the growing number of women in higher education, statistics have shown a steady trend since 2009 of women dominating the university and doctorate level in all fields—except for computer science. Less than 26% of the world's computing industry workers are women. The number of science and math courses boys and girls take during elementary and middle school is roughly equal. But when they enter high school, the gender gap begins to emerge. Today, however, Girls Who Code is changing that and is on track to close the gender gap in new entry-level tech jobs by 2030.
High school is a critical time in helping teens become aware of potential STEM careers and connecting these with their interests and educational options. Teachers, role models, and stereotypes in media significantly affect girls' interest in STEM subjects. Having been both a student and teacher gives Blizzard-Caron a rich understanding of the positive rippling effects.
"Teachers were super pivotal figures in my life," she says. "The only reason I pursued engineering was because I had teachers encouraging me. I didn't actually feel like I was necessarily gifted, and I feel like there are lots of students who have that self-doubt and just need people to advocate for them, to be a mentor, to open doors."
As part of a broad curriculum, Girls Who Code offers three main programs: clubs for beginners grades 3-12, college + career supporting college-aged students and early career professionals, and a summer intensive program for high school students. In a role focused on shaping and guiding a team of curriculum developers, Blizzard-Caron is paying special attention to how they're creating learning experiences that value the different cultures and perspectives that students bring to their classrooms.
"We know the coding portion is really important," she says. "But having a culturally-responsive lens where we are also encouraging students to think about computer science issues as issues of equity and access is equally important."
In 2022, Girls Who Code launched a suite of two project-based courses addressing personal security and community impact, risk and prevention, and cryptography through a social justice lens.
"[The program] encourages students to think about the issue of cyber security as an issue of equity," Blizzard-Caron says. "And really thinking about who has access to be more cyber secure, or take actions that protect them from cyber threats. It's something that our team is super proud of."
One of the most impactful takeaways from Girls Who Code is its emphasis on building and being a part of a community that may not thrive without them. "We design the experience intentionally hoping that they build a community with one another," says Blizzard-Caron. "And it's awesome to see that come to life. That they build a community they feel connected to and that they can speak about things they really care about. I wish I had this kind of experience as a younger person. So it makes me really happy to see them have it now."
Written by Sheila Lam for Youth To The People