‘Girls Who Code’ empowers girls for tech careers

Kelly NorrellOur Town Youth, West Knoxville

Girls at Bearden High School have an edge preparing for careers in computer and information technology – a club called Girls Who Code.

When information technology (IT) instructor Amy Shipley saw last year that the number of girls taking computer classes was low, she enlisted the help of senior Sarah Yeow. Together, they launched the Bearden Girls Who Code club (aligned with the national Girls Who Code) last spring.

Amy Shipley

Today, about 16 BHS girls gather every Friday morning to do projects in programming languages like Python, Scratch and Swift. They learn about careers in technology fields and do service projects. Regulars include computer students like Autumn Larmee, Aiden Smith, Laney Vogel, Mebd Glatt and Avigail Laing, plus students who have never taken a computer course. All girls are welcome.

Sarah Yeow is now a freshman studying information sciences at the University of Tennessee.

“I definitely see the impact of Girls Who Code clubs, because if there had not been clubs like that while I was in high school, I would not be in the major I am now,” said Yeow, who hopes to become a user-experience designer. “It draws inspiration from strong women pioneers in STEM to help encourage the girls of our generation.”

Girls Who Code is a place for girls to meet others who have a common goal, said Shipley. “It helps them to find relationships and knowledge in coding and to increase the number of girls to take web design, coding and cybersecurity.”

A curious situation exists in the U.S. job market. More than 500,000 jobs in computer and IT occupations are open, with more jobs expected, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median salary for computer and IT jobs in 2020 was $91,250.

But the number of women in computing occupations has nosedived – from 35 percent in 1991 to fewer than 25 percent today, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Only a fraction of those women is Black or Latina.

Girls Who Code: Sophia Mossing, Samantha Sanchez, Megan Kleckley, Valerie Kinson, Stephanie Cho, Avigail Laing, Laney Vogel; (back row) Aiden Smith, Sadie Maierhofer, Piper Kelly, Kiana Toms, Autumn Larmee; (not pictured) Mebd Glatt, Sara Bailey, Priya Soneji, Adaline Armstrong and Autumn Hensley.

Bearden High School, like many Knox County schools, has a strong IT program with a three-person team of teachers and courses that can lead to AP credit, national industry certifications, and dual credit at Pellissippi State Community College. But only about 18 percent of the IT students are girls, Shipley said.

The exciting thing about Girls Who Code is that it helps girls find their interest in technology. “Our goal is to close the gender gap in technology, to make young women aware of what is available to them,” Shipley said.

“Girls Who Code gives girls an opportunity to learn coding even if they have zero experience,” Yeow said.

Four other Knox County schools – L&N STEM Academy, Adrian Burnett Elementary, West Haven Elementary and Cedar Bluff Elementary – also have Girls Who Code clubs, said Jasmine Floyd, educational technology liaison for Knox County Schools. She said Knox County Virtual Elementary and Farragut Intermediate are forming clubs.

Kelly Norrell is a freelance writer, communications strategist and photographer in Knoxville. She is particularly interested in women’s and social-justice issues.

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