Megan Doherty, Technical Specialist and DigiGirlz Lead, Microsoft Canada
“I don’t think she’s ready for that,” a parent said to me as her daughter stopped reaching for the dancing robot we had on display. At the time, I was presenting programming workshops for kids at an elementary school science fair. This parent came up to our table with their two kids—a son and a daughter. The son could care less about the drones, robots and VR games we had set up, but the daughter reached for the robot with excitement.
I asked, “Do you want to build robots?”
“YES!” she said.
Immediately afterwards, she heard her first “No” and her first “You aren’t capable enough.”
As a technologist and passionate educator, I spent three years developing specialized computer science courses for kids, teaching everything from animation to video game design. This started by teaching robotics to eight to 11-year-old girls. As a young woman, going through my own struggles getting a degree in software engineering, I saw a lot of parallels in the way the girls felt frustrated when trying to learn programming. Surprise! It wasn’t the actual concepts themselves, but the self doubt and fear of failure holding them back.
I went on to teach the same class for boys of the same age. This fear of failure and self doubt was nowhere to be seen. They had no fear, their code was riddled with errors, they chose to just create. I began to realize that we are doing our girls the injustice of not giving them the room to be uncomfortable, to fail and be messy. These key traits are the base of engineering and computer science; you need to be comfortable with making mistakes, with just trying on the road to developing problem-solving skills.
Young girls are brilliant designers and engineers, and perhaps we aren’t giving them the full ability to see it. When teaching my class of young girls, I gave them a design document to create the visuals, write out the programming logic and create a plan to execute their ideas. Would you believe it if I told you that the girls’ robots had less bugs and were finished much earlier than the smash-and-grab approach the boys had? Once I told the girls they had everything they needed to achieve success, and that failure was necessary to be successful, they were unstoppable.
Make no mistake—young girls can have an interest in STEM, and they do! And who are we to hold them back or tell them they are not capable enough? Young girls do want to build robots, create video games and be creative. And they are really good at it. Seeds of doubt grow as they age—some are already taking themselves out of these opportunities or coming in late and feeling lost—and we need them to be fearless!
As parents and educators, how do we battle and combat these narratives early on?
- Provide equal opportunities. Do not assume that a robotics class will only interest boys. When a girl finally steps into the classroom, she may never see someone who looks like herself because everyone made the unfortunate assumption prior.
- Kids are brilliant. They have no fear until you tell them there is something to fear, so be fearless yourselves, parents!
- Representation matters. Read books and talk about women who have accomplished cool technical feats!
I failed to see myself as a woman in tech, but it was in teaching these young girls and watching them accept failure that I saw myself and the changes we can make, together, that brought me here. I can’t wait to see what your daughters do in their fields in the future!