BROOKLYN – New York City’s tech industry is growing every day at an exponential pace. New start-ups have popped up left and right, along with an incoming flood of Silicon Valley types trying to build the next big thing. But technology as a whole remains somewhat of a boy’s club, both by the numbers and according to the testimony of many of the women who have managed to make a mark on the field. Beginning this fall, local leaders at the Greenpoint YMCA are looking to combat this problem by targeting tech-saavy girls early.
BETAgirls is a two-semester, year-long after school program that hopes to help high school aged girls geared towards STEM skills (which stands for science, technology, engineering and math) aim for the furthest possible reaches of their ambitions. Participants will take part in weekly sessions in which they acquire basic programming and other computer science skills that are often not covered during the school day. Mentors and industry speakers will enhance innovation aspirations and encourage teens to take a real stab at development; reminding them that in the tech world, multi-million dollar ideas from people under 25 are far from unusual. In the second session, the girls will take part in an international “Technovation” challenge in which they develop, build and market their own original mobile app, and will receive a total of $500 from the program to fund future projects, purchase software, or just help pay for college.
“You can’t be in the education or youth development field without knowing that this is where our kids need to be and that they need to have these very basic level competencies, because this is where we are moving towards,” said Shakira O’Kane, Director for College and Career Access programs for the YMCA of Greater New York, adding that the program is a direct response to perceived inadequacies in existing high school education, particularly for girls geared towards math and science. “At the YMCA, we are consistently keeping our ear towards what is happening in terms of youth development and where we are seeing these gaps.”
Such gaps don’t only appear while kids are in school, but manifest later in the employment demographics of these industries. While gradually improving, significant differences in employment between women and men in the tech industry are still stark. O’Kane’s belief that these industries may hold the strongest future opportunities for young people certainly has merit. According to a 2013 HR&A Advisors tech employment report, workers in the NYC tech sector earn 49 percent more than the average hourly wage in New York, and the same area grew 18 percent from 2003 to 2013, compared to an employment growth of 12 percent in NYC and 4 percent in the country overall. But women are disproportionately under-employed in these fast-growing, lucrative fields. Despite even 50/50 employment between women and men in NYC overall, in tech occupations 71 percent of all available jobs are held by men while just 29 percent by women. The highest paying occupation surveyed in the report is a computer and informations systems manager, earning on average an hourly wage of $75.80. Over 74 percent of these managers are male.
Many educators and advocates are attributing this disparity partially to a lack of direction or encouragement towards the field from a young age. Karynn Tran is a former market researcher who decided to change careers and began taking intensive coding classes at General Assembly, a New York based tech education company. She remembers being interested in early coding and HTML in 6th or 7th grade when the internet first became a widely-used tool, but the interest fell off by the time she began seriously considering her career path.
“It wasn’t really a strong consideration when I went to college, which is strange because I really did enjoy learning about it when I was younger,” Tran said. She feels having the technical skills necessary to build her own projects will afford her some creative autonomy that was lacking in her former job. “I was doing the research for ideas to be created but I wasn’t the one making them come to fruition,” said Tran. She added: “The thing that appealed to me about a tech career was the opportunity to build something on my own.”
Aurelia Moser leads the New York wing of Girls Develop It, a non-profit that provides the same kinds of classes and mentorship for adult women that BETAgirls will for teens. She has a lot of experience being amongst a handful of women in a sea of male developers, and feels the nature of the work can lead, somewhat unintentionally, to tense interactions amongst male and female tech employees.
“When you interact mostly with machines you forget what can be interpreted as condescending or inappropriate in a human space,” Moser said. She sees any situation in which one is such a significant minority be potentially fraught, and that it is only natural to feel intimidated or silenced by an homogenous majority. Moser hopes that more women becoming code-literate will alleviate such tensions, and cannot wait to see the day when her services are entirely unnecessary.
“As a company we are working collectively towards a goal of obsolescence,” she said.
For more information on BETAgirls and to apply: http://www.ymcanyc.org/greenpoint/pages/betagirls