Scrawled across a window is a frank declaration of teenage love: "I [heart] > One Direction" – a reference to the popular British boy band and the only visible sign that the loft-like space in Toronto is an all-girls camp. A group of 40 girls, nine to 13, sit at rows of desks, their faces washed in the glow of laptop screens. With concentrated stares, they clack at the keyboard, designing computer games.
A game designed by a girl is mostly exactly like a game designed by a boy – or as Heather Payne, the founder of Girls Learning Code, puts it, they're not full of "ponies and rainbows."
There are programs like the one at the non-profit Khan Academy, which recently launched a computer science platform where kids of all types can learn how to code – a vital skill for any youth in an increasingly digital society – through interactive videos on programming, drawing, animation and user interaction. But programs like Girls Learning Code, focused squarely on encouraging girls to enter the field, are cropping up across Canada in an effort to close the male-female gap in the tech industry by targeting girls during their formative years, before gender stereotypes become entrenched. Somewhere in this group of pre-teens could be the next Marissa Mayer, the 37-year-old former Google executive who was announced as Yahoo's CEO in July. Her high-profile appointment put the spotlight back on women who are breaking the glass ceiling in tech.
According to 2007 data from Statistics Canada, women make up about 30 per cent of university graduates in mathematics and computer science, down from 35 per cent in 1992, and represent only a quarter of the workforce in the information and communications technology industry, a figure that has remained stagnant for the past decade.
Now, the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto and Queen's University run all-girl science and tech camps. In May, the public school district in Toronto held a computer coding conference for Grade 6 girls. Young women are also taking up the cause, like 19-year-old Genevieve Vanderveldt-L'Esperance, a student at Montreal's McGill University, who started an awareness campaign in 2010 using a video blog, GenIncTV, and who teaches computer programming workshops for pre-teen and teen girls.
"We want everyone to have a voice in creating the next wave of awesome technologies," says Ms. Payne.
The problem with attracting girls, says David Ticoll, a special advisor to the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow's ICT Skills, isn't that they dislike doing technical work, but that "they don't want to do work that they perceive to be alienating and boring." Girls gravitate toward social disciplines, where they feel like they'll make a difference, he says.
It's the perception of IT fields that has to change, he says, evolving from the idea of a cloistered, somewhat nerdy man, toiling in front of a monitor. In Canada, there are a growing number of jobs that merge IT skills with traditional ones, creating "mashup" careers like bioengineering or digital media that allow for creativity and social applications, Mr. Ticoll says – they're just not as visible.
If girls are expose to this side of the tech industry at a younger age, Ms. Vanderveldt-L'Esperance thinks more girls will gravitate toward it and be excited to produce, and not just passively consume technology. "When I teach my courses, I usually have a hard time getting girls out of my class. They just want to stay there and talk about it."
After attending a computer gaming incubator for women, Cecily Carver co-founded Dames Making Games, a Toronto organization that encourages women to get involved in game development. Even though she has a computer science degree, gaming wasn't something she thought about before. "It brought together those two parts of myself – the more artsy/literary side and the tech side." (Ms. Carver's day job as a digital marketing manager at the Canadian Opera Company combines these two passions.)
Girls Learning Code, which first ran as a March Break camp this year and was brought back for another week-long session in August, is a way of cultivating the next generation of software developers, programmers or engineers – the tech industry's next leaders, Ms. Payne says. We spoke to four girls at the camp about the barriers to learning computer programming and why coding is, simply, cool.
Juliette Leach, 11
Why she's learning to code: To learn more about Scratch, a programming language that can be used to create games. "When you don't know a lot of about this coding, you have no clue what is going behind the game itself. But once you know coding, you see it from a different perspective."
On being a girl in tech: "It's kind of cool to be a girl who knows how to do that stuff."
Caitlin Chua, 13
The game her group designed: "There are plants and they are being invaded by weeds because of this evil person. This guy, Flower Man, goes to save everyone, so he shoots weeds with flower power and it turns into a flower. And then the garden's pretty."
The best part about the camp: During the March Break camp, her group created a mock website for a non-profit that would provide safe haven for abused children in Third World countries. "Once we actually use [coding] in real life, it will change the world and help people."
Brianna Baker, 10
On being at an all-girls camp: "Boys always think, 'we're so much better at technology.' But they're really not because a lot of girls are good at technology too."
On coding as a form of empowerment: "It's made me feel more confident about [computers]. And when someone says they're better than me, I have a reason to stick up for myself."
Miha Saluja, 12
Why girls avoid tech: "Girls are afraid of ruining their reputation at school, where people will think, 'Oh, look at that geek over there.'"
On why she's learning to code: "When I get older I want to be a doctor. And when you're a doctor, don't you have to use a lot of machines? It's still techy." Miha says she wants to do "something big" with her life – her role model is Tim Berners-Lee, British inventor of the World Wide Web. Or, as she calls him, "the Internet guy."