The pandemic has necessitated virtual transitions for not only schools, but also nonprofits that provide alternate ways to learn and build community. Girls Who Code, AnitaB.org, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) are still working to close the gender gap in technology. In providing resources for women and girls in STEM, they have faced challenges and successes when shifting their in-person programming fully online.
Their targeted moves to invest in research, social networks, education strategies, and the long-term futures of students have allowed them to rapidly adapt to the pandemic’s changes and meet the needs of tens of thousands of girls, especially those who are from underrepresented groups and facing extraordinary pandemic-related challenges.
Each organization found a way to research its own community and target programming accordingly. Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani said in an interview with VentureBeat that once the pandemic forced schools to close in the spring, “We knew we had to pivot quickly and serve [these students] with equity and accessibility in mind.”
Surveys were key in informing the organizations’ strategies. Saujani reported that based on a Girls Who Code survey of college-aged women earlier this year, 30% of respondents had a parent or guardian lose their job, 30% of graduates had a job or internship offer rescinded, and 40% of seniors were still searching for jobs. Girls Who Code has accounted for these changes and placed a greater emphasis on helping girls access and explore careers in the tech industry.
Both NCWIT and AnitaB.org also sent out surveys to over 20,000 girls and women to ask how the pandemic was impacting them and what they needed for support. Respondents expressed concerns ranging from social isolation to difficulties with remote learning to issues finding childcare. The pandemic amplified existing issues people were already experiencing, like balancing parenting with working from home, and demanded more attention for them.
The nonprofits’ emphasis on researching their communities is perhaps more important than ever. NCWIT president and CEO Terry Hogan told VentureBeat in an interview that “everything we do is based in social science research … we have a team of social scientists, and they both do primary research, and they also bring together all the research in the field [to develop best practices].” For example, NCWIT’s website offers resources for company leaders working to make their workplace culture more inclusive.
Social isolation brought on by the pandemic is particularly problematic for women in technology fields. They are already outnumbered in school programs, where they receive just 21% of Computer Science bachelor’s degrees, and in the workforce, where they hold only 25% of computing roles. Many women in the technology industry also find that their workplace culture disregards inclusion.
It becomes harder for girls and women to cultivate connections and receive mentorship without the spontaneity and ease that can accompany in-person support. But these communities are vital to young women’s well-being and success, and nonprofits have worked to better incorporate them into their social networks and event planning strategies.
Girls Who Code has its own proprietary learning platform, Girls Who Code HQ, which students and educators access to participate in clubs and immersion programs. It has a messaging space where members can meet and give each other feedback on early drafts of their projects. Some of the platform’s curriculum is also centered around “Sisterhood Activities,” which incorporate social interaction into online club programming. “At the core of our pedagogy is creating sisterhood,” Saujani said, “we’re using technology to build community when you can’t spontaneously grab coffee.”
AnitaB.org, which has a broad mission to increase women’s impact on technology and technology’s impact on women, also provides a membership platform. AnitaB.org put the platform into beta one year ago but recently accelerated its development in light of the pandemic. It provides access to a technical curriculum and career development resources. Premium members, who pay $50 or $100 per year for access, can practice their interviewing skills with mentors on the website.
Using more mainstream social media, NCWIT helps facilitate Facebook groups and Slack channels for high school and college student leaders who instruct younger peers in programming fundamentals through its Aspire IT programs. This year, to combat feelings of isolation, the organization has also focused on planning online events that allow girls and women of all ages to connect virtually.
With its virtual events, NCWIT benefited from being able to remove geography and distance from the planning equation. Now these events have become even more central to the organization’s strategy. “Our team … has really switched over to be almost event production specialists, and we’ve kind of gone from our first virtual event, which we were quite nervous to pull off in May, to now we’ve probably done 10 virtual events,” NCWIT program director Edie Cheng said. “With each event, we keep adding a little bit more interaction or tools for actual genuine community-building and connection because that’s the thing that people feel that they’re missing in this virtual arena.”
In June, NCWIT hosted a lunch and learn series with tech industry professionals. In July, it put on a showcase where students at the university and graduate levels could present their work and receive feedback from tech mentors. In October, three women who had founded their own ventures presented keynotes to a few hundred high school students and engaged with them in a speed networking session.
“It actually really engaged the students who are feeling ‘All I do is sit with my camera off in my online classes, and so I’m not seeing my friends and being able to connect,’” Cheng said. “Some of them stayed on way longer than we thought they would and were extremely excited to actually feel like they were bridging and making new friendships and new connections through this application.”
AnitaB.org has also expanded its events. Before the pandemic, it would host conferences with up to 25,000 people. AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Darden Wilkerson told VentureBeat that after the organization’s community survey, “One of the first things we did was start a webinar series that initially happened every week. We call it our Elevating Series … we brought leaders from various opportunities to speak together.”
According to Wilkerson, many webinar participants attend from countries other than the United States. The webinar topics relate to breaking into the tech industry and building a presence in tech spaces. “We’ve had people who have attended 100% of them or 80% of them, so it has a good following. And what it has done for women is given them the opportunity, first of all, to stay in touch with each other,” she said.
Instruction is more abstracted and logistically complex without a physical classroom. This may be especially true with technical concepts, which students often learn through hands-on training and teamwork.
Organizations have found alternate ways to replicate hands-on projects. NCWIT, for example, purchases Arduino kits — each comes with hardware, including an Arduino UNO Rev3 microcontroller board for physical tinkering, and self-paced online lessons on programming and coding basics — for young teens in its Code for Change program.
Code for Change also hosts weekly three-hour Zoom meetings for its students. Each is structured to optimize engagement and build fluency with the internet of things (IoT). Students start out solving technical issues as an optional warm-up task. Then they spend the first hour of the Zoom session going over questions with instructors and deciding on a project to program. After that, they break off into section groups to work on their projects, and for the final 30 minutes, they come together to discuss their experiences and receive instructions for an optional project to do on their own time.
The girls get 15-minute breaks for snacks and talking to their peers in the Zoom call. And to account for students who learn at different speeds or miss a session, the program records YouTube videos to cover material taught during the week and any optional assignments.
NCWIT converted about half of its summer programs, estimated by Cheng to be around 40 or 50 in total, into an online format. Cheng said that in addition to recruiting and registering girls, “There are challenges of … changing what your curriculum is going to be because you can’t really literally look over the shoulders in an online format … we definitely turned to being more creative about how we deliver programming.”
NCWIT adjusted its curriculum’s pace to fit a remote setting. They scaled many of their in-person programs that were half- or full-day in length to two- or three-hour sessions to sustain engagement, especially for students in elementary school who would struggle to remain focused for hours at a time on a video call. Like Code for Change, to complement live instruction sessions, NCWIT also offers asynchronous resources girls can access before or after class.
But accessing these classes isn’t always straightforward, as it depends on the girls’ living situations. “Virtual education is an oxymoron for kids who don’t have a device at home or are sharing a device with three family members,” Saujani said. She said she frequently heard of girls going to Burger King parking lots to get Wi-Fi access and completing their homework there.
Last summer, Girls Who Code organized a two-week, virtual coding program for the first time. Over 5,000 girls from around the world participated, and more than half of them were Black, Latinx, or from low-income families. The organization was able to supply participants in need with computers. Some girls may not have been able to join due to distance or transportation constraints had the program been in-person.
Like NCWIT, Girls Who Code emphasized shorter live instruction times, a combination of live and asynchronous instruction, and project-based learning in its educational programming. Girls Who Code says according to its research, these virtual program graduates are just as likely to be interested in pursuing a tech career as in-person program graduates.
AnitaB.org supports a slightly older community than Girls Who Code, and its platform has a less centralized, more free-form curriculum. Wilkerson noted that tech can be unpredictable, especially given the pandemic.
“Four years ago, PHP was basically a dead language. And then, overnight, there were organizations that started to make demands for PHP. So what we want to do is say ‘Here’s the work, here’s opportunities out there, and here’s what they’re looking for,’” she said. When exploring technical and professional training videos, members can choose topics that interest them and self-direct their learning.
AnitaB.org has also modified its approach in order to mitigate virtual learning challenges. In addition to growing its platform — where members can access courses at any time and learn from mentors — and the size of its events, it has worked to address students’ basic needs. “There were actually students who couldn’t get home, or students who were finishing [college courses] on their phones, and they couldn’t pay their cell phone bill,” Wilkerson said. In response, AnitaB.org expanded its existing Tech Journey Fund that allows college women to apply for emergency support in their degree completion.
“We shifted it to a COVID-19 experience because what we were learning is that there were students who had food insecurity, who many times had to quit school because they couldn’t pay their rent, or they didn’t have a car, or the car broke down that they used to drive across town to get to school, or they ran out of money to pay the babysitter,” Wilkerson said.
These funding awards help students get back on their feet — especially for low-income students, for whom unexpected medical bills, moving costs, or childcare payments could be catastrophic.
Investing in her future
Beyond educational programming, the organizations’ scope includes recent political involvement and advocacy to create long-term opportunities for young women and increase their impact within technology.
AnitaB.org is part of a team effort to update the government with more modern technology. “We have a new project called U.S. of Tech, where we’re working with the government to actually hire 10,000 technical people, and of course, our job is to get as many women in there as possible,” Wilkerson said.
When COVID-19 hit the United States, the federal government’s COBOL-based system struggled to tolerate the surge of Americans applying for unemployment. COBOL code, which was largely developed and promoted by Grace Hopper in the 1960s, no longer meets the government’s volume of needs. But AnitaB.org is helping improve the systems’ operation.
“The goal is … to help rewrite that code to make access for information much easier than it is today … and that’s actually very exciting,” Wilkerson said.
The U.S. presidential transition in January may also be relevant to these nonprofits’ trajectories, perhaps through shifts in cultural attitudes or funding.
“It’s no secret that in 2017 I declined an invitation to collaborate with the Trump administration with a $200 million initiative to build computer science programs,” Saujani said. “With the Trump administration, there was no common ground to be found with women’s organizations.”
Saujani expressed hope in a Joe Biden administration, saying, “This administration will make sure every single kid learns how to code … this administration is committed to education.” Last summer, Girls Who Code’s summer program hosted incoming First Lady Jill Biden for an online fireside chat.
Earlier this year, Girls Who Code’s policy recommendations informed a successful education bill for Kentucky to set state-level, long-term goals for its computer science classes. These goals may help quantify and track computer science education when remote learning makes its impact less visible. Indiana’s and Colorado’s state governments have also used Girls Who Code’s Policy Agenda to help write legislation to increase girls’ involvement in computer science.
Each organization helps fulfill its mission by educating young women and building a supportive community for them in the tech world.
And while the pandemic has complicated how these missions are operationalized, NCWIT’s Hogan suggests it has also expanded knowledge of remote learning for organizations so they can better serve students.
“So there has been a lot of opportunity … we have learned a lot about how people learn and how people interact and the importance of making sure we’re able to reach as many people as possible in whatever the situation happens to be,” Hogan said.