The technology industry is made up of just 26% women, compared to a nearly equal split at 49% across the total workforce. Most notably, that number hasn’t done much besides decrease over the past 30 years, hovering around the same percentage and dipping slightly in recent years.
But the lack of women in tech is a deeper issue that stems all the way back to childhood — with gender stereotypes that have historically, and inaccurately, suggested that women and girls are less skilled at math, science, and technology. Unfortunately, that persistent bias has grown into a self-fulfilling prophecy over the years, creating a systemic issue where girls and women aren’t well represented in STEM, and therefore don’t feel empowered or encouraged to pursue it as a career path.
“For a certain period of time in your life when you’re in middle school, your interest in STEM as a girl or as a non-binary learner can be impacted by the lack of representation that you see. You can have a spark, or you can have an interest, but if you don’t see yourself represented, you will not necessarily start taking those courses for high school, which will in fact impact your ability to participate in post-secondary, which will impact your ability to get a career in STEM later in your life,” says Rebecca Hazell, interim executive director of Hackergal.
To close the gender gap for women in STEM careers, girls need to be encouraged to maintain an interest in STEM during elementary, middle, and high school. And that’s the core of Hackergal’s mission — to create opportunities for young girls to engage with STEM education and to consider STEM careers as a potential option.
Fostering the talent pipeline in middle school
Hackergal works with middle school and high school aged girls, as well as nonbinary students, directly through educators and school districts. Learners connect with Hackergal through classrooms, community centers, homeschooling programs, summer school, hackathon events, and coding clubs across Canada. And each year, Hackergal hosts a hackathon event at the end of the school year for kids participating in coding clubs.
The hackathons and coding clubs are targeted at grades six to nine, while the Hackergal Ambassador program is a highly competitive program for high schoolers who have aged out of Hackergal’s middle school coding and hackathon programs.
Hackergal uses a “teach the teacher” model, in which Hackergal connects with teachers, school boards, and school districts across Canada to directly train educators and provide them with information on the Hackergal Hub, Hazell says. The Hub enables teachers to bring a full coding curriculum to students that they can easily integrate into their lesson plans.
“Whether [kids learn] during classroom time, or it’s an extracurricular, they create that safe space where the girls can learn, make mistakes, and raise their hand with confidence and feel comfortable with that,” says Hazell, who adds that a lot of educators express nervousness about implementing a coding club, especially when they have no experience with coding themselves. But Hackergal’s approach aims to empower any educator to expanding their students’ access to coding education, regardless of the teacher’s own programming experience.
Utilizing a platform called Lynx, which originated in Canada and is developed in English and French, Hackergal provides educational programming across the country for students and teachers. The team at Hackergal has been intentional about making its curriculum available to students and teachers in any situation — whether they’re homeschooled or reside in rural areas of Canada, and regardless of language.
“We know that there are certain populations who need our programming a lot and they need the support. They need the community, they need the connection, and the competence-building for their youth. And we’re more than happy to keep growing our program in the interest of serving them better,” says Hazell.
Empowering a future generation of workers
Hackergal’s current generation of learners is highly motivated to have a social impact in their work, says Hazell, adding that this is reflected in each year’s hackathon theme. Last year’s participants, for example, worked around the theme “coding together for our planet,” with a focus on sustainability and environmental issues, such as addressing pollution or developing innovative energy solutions.
“We are very connected to social impact as an organization. It guides everything that we do,” Hazell says. “Research shows that girls specifically are more connected to tech and STEM learning if there is a social impact that’s aligned with that.”
Encouraging students’ passions about social progress is part of Hackergal’s commitment, given that as a generation Hackergal learners will face “some of the biggest problems that this world has ever encountered” and will be among those responsible for finding solutions, Hazell says.
“The people who are using these skills that we’re training them on now are going to have careers that are directly involved in coming up with solutions, and trying to innovate, to make sure our planet is okay,” she adds.
The program also helps its learners establish impressive resumes right out of high school, with some Hackergal students starting up companies by grade 11. That motivation and commitment will help them to become top talent for organizations in the future.
“They’re very motivated in that respect, the teenagers who are in our program, and they have a lot to offer and see the bigger picture. They’re thinking about what they can do and how it will impact the world going forward and what they can do to positively impact the world,” says Hazell.
For companies that want to work with Hackergal, it’s something of a “boutique” experience, says Laurel Maule, development manager at Hackergal. Because the organizations doesn’t have a home-base for students or a main operation center where companies can donate time or resources, corporate sponsors and donors typically work directly with Hackergal to support the organization’s specific needs.
As more organizations focus on DEI, they’re turning to organizations like Hackergal to help solve the talent pipeline as early as possible. For these organizations, it’s can also be an early branding opportunity, as they can put their company name in front of the future workforce.
Maule says that organizations often reach out to ask how they can help expand the talent pipeline. Beyond financial donations, some volunteer an IT executive to speak at a hackathon or coding event, or to write a blog or record a video that might inspire the young learners. Or they might invite ambassador students to do a specialized coding camp at their offices or offer mentorship and advice to older students who are thinking about their careers.
For the learners, it’s an opportunity to start fostering a network early on. They’ll have experiences with a variety of organizations, professional connections throughout the industry, and unique guidance from technology leaders, all before they graduate high school.
“The sky’s kind of the limit on how CIOs want to be engaged and how companies and employees want to be engaged. Each partnership, organization, or company that we work with, brings its own special set of skills. We work closely with them to figure out how we can utilize and build that long-term partnership to support these girls throughout their learning process,” says Maule.
A sustainable support model
By keeping resources low, and by working with government funding and directly with school districts and boards, Hackergal has been able to maintain a free program that enables students to learn, no matter their circumstances.
“We work in a way that doesn’t draw down too much on our resources and allows us to have that creativity and that programming. And we are interested in growing and learning from what we do and trying to challenge ourselves to be as innovative as the kids need us to be, because that’s what we’re trying to share with them. We want to make sure that we’re providing the kind of programming that challenges, that keeps them excited,” says Hazell.
And those efforts are working, as girls are gaining confidence through the program. According to a survey of the latest hackathon’s participants, 97% said they felt more confident in their coding and digital skills after the hackathon, 96% said they were more interested in writing code, and 100% say they felt more knowledgeable.
“You really can’t get better statistics in that sense, especially from a survey that you put out to kids that age group. It was fantastic to see that feedback, and I think we’re going to keep trying to meet that high satisfaction rate amongst our learners,” says Hazell.
Future of Hackergal
For the future, Hackergal is working on developing a full mentorship program for investors that will involve “more interactive, longer-term mentorship programs,” to further support students, says Hazell.
The organization also seeks to continue offering the program for free, as many of the students who need this programming the most are the ones who can’t afford it, or who don’t have access to it, making equitable access a key to Hackergal’s mission.
“I don’t think that we could say with conviction that we were serving those who need us most if we were charging for the resources that we are delivering,” says Hazell.
Hackergal is also working to increase sponsorship opportunities. Last year, for the first time, Hackergal launched a scholarship program, awarding two ambassadors who had graduated from the adult program a $5,000 scholarship for tuition or other expenses, generously provided by Royal Bank of Canada.
Organizations seeking to build their own talent pipeline through coding and STEM camps are also looking to Hackergal for advice on how to start, and how to continue that support beyond just one or two events.
“I hear from some of our speakers, and they always say without fail, ‘I wish this program had been around when I was younger,’” says Hazell. Even if girls don’t end up in tech careers, the key is “feeling encouraged to try something that’s maybe a little bit scary or challenging,” and finding that motivation to “push through barriers and to keep going, feeling supported by a community,” says Hazell.
“Being able to partner with Hackergal — it’s kind of like you’re doing it for your younger self, especially if you’re a woman in leadership in tech,” Hazell says. “Partnering with Hackergal allows them to fulfill that wish or that deep-seated feeling of wanting to connect with that kid. And seeing that excitement, and some of the photos we have from our experiences, really makes me emotional because you see these kids, and they’re so excited to be a part of that community and that energy is special and it can have a bigger impact.”
Diversity and Inclusion