Ladies learning code together

Genevieve L'Esperance (left) and Heather Payne. (Supplied)

Genevieve L'Esperance (left) and Heather Payne. (Supplied)

William Wolfe-Wylie, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:27 PM ET

It's all about role models. With nobody to look up to, it's difficult to find anything to aspire to.

Genevieve L'Esperance was only 3 years old when she started taking martial arts lessons. She was good and routinely beat the boys her own age. But it was her teachers that taught her one of her most valuable life lessons, and one that she now hopes more girls will learn.

"The whole mindset of my teachers was that your gender was irrelevant and that it was what you set your mind to do that counted," she said from Montreal, where she is now a student at McGill University. "We need to instil that mentality in girls as young as possible."

Nowhere is the need for this mentality greater than in tech fields.

While the percentage of women in degree programs across Canada has been rising steadily over the past 20 years -- now making up nearly 60% of all students -- only 37% of graduates from math and computer science programs are women, according to 2010 data from Statistics Canada.

With technological literacy becoming an increasingly crucial part of dozens of professions, a nation-wide movement has been growing in campuses, neighbourhoods and cities to make sure women have access to those skills, and that girls can have access to a new set of role models.

"In May we are hosting our first Canadian event," said L'Esperance, who has participated in several U.S. workshops through her own brand, GenIncTv, which has its own YouTube channel to rebroadcast lessons. "Two hundred and eighteen Grade 5 and 6 girls will attend my workshop along with sessions in astrophysics, brain imaging and aeronautics engineering. These are fields that have wonderful role models and girls need to experience a day in the life of these women."

Over in Toronto, Heather Payne is running her own program through Ladies Learning Code, a recently registered not-for-profit that helps women add to their technical skill set. She sees stereotypes about women's roles in technology settling in girls' minds at dangerously young ages, and is hoping her camps and workshops for adults and youngsters -- the latter through Girls Learning Code -- can help to reverse them.

"The girls were 9-14 and so many commented on enjoying the girls-only aspect to the camp and they didn't have to worry about looking nerdy," Payne said about her first week-long camp - hosted with the help of the Mozilla foundation and Planet Geek - this year over March Break. "It's especially concerning because if somehow girls that young are getting that message, that's quite a barrier for us to get over."

On the adult side, participants in Ladies Learning Code pay a $45 fee that goes toward renting classroom space and spend a day learning the basics of Ruby or Python (programming languages) or another day learning InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop (design programs).

"We have a 4-1 ratio of students to instructors, so pretty close to 30 volunteers helping out," Payne says, and there are routinely waiting lists for the sessions. Participants in the girls' program learn to build a website that centres on an issue they care about.

It's important to note that these programs - which are springing up in Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and dozens of other cities -- are not about pushing women into a new line of work.

"We have never claimed that Ladies Learning Code is going to create thousands of female developers, it has never been about that," Payne says. "I think LLC is more importantly about spreading digital literacy and exposing people to this new kind of world that's becoming incredibly important."

Both L'Esperance and Payne, though, both hope their youth programs could help to change the face of Canada's tech fields. And it's working.

The Girls Learning Code summer camp is already confirmed for two sessions this summer, and GenIncTv is approaching 10,000 views on YouTube and includes an endorsement from film director James Cameron.

If Payne and L'Esperance think girls need good role models, they're doing a pretty good job of filling the requirements themselves.

 


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