Tarika Barrett, CEO at Girls Who Code, an international non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology, recently sat down with AWS Enterprise Strategist Miriam McLemore to talk about how her organization is helping young women, especially women of color, break into the tech industry.
Tarika’s journey has been shaped by her upbringing as the proud daughter of Jamaican immigrants, dividing her time between Kingston, Jamaica, and Brooklyn, New York. It has profoundly influenced her worldview and understanding of race and class equity issues. Tarika’s mother instilled in her the importance of mentorship and fighting for equity, laying the foundation for her future endeavors in the education space.
Getting to Work
After college, Tarika worked as a political organizer, gaining insights into the complexities of structural inequalities. She then taught children who were deaf and hard of hearing and pursued a Ph.D. in teaching and learning. These experiences solidified her belief in the necessity of education reform and its role in promoting equity.
The turning point came when Tarika led the team responsible for designing and launching New York City’s first-ever high school focused on software engineering, with equity as a central principle. This opportunity allowed her to merge her passion for education with her commitment to creating a more equitable society. Today, Tarika serves as the CEO of Girls Who Code, one of the largest organizations dedicated to empowering girls in the tech field.
An International Reach
Girls Who Code is an international nonprofit organization that aims to bridge the gender gap in entry-level tech jobs by 2030. Its approach involves building a movement that educates, inspires, and equips young women and nonbinary students with essential computing skills necessary for thriving in the 21st-century workforce.
The Covid-19 pandemic posed significant challenges for Girls Who Code, requiring it to adapt its programs. Despite the obstacles, the organization remained committed to supporting its clubs and students. It transformed its Summer Immersion Program into a two-week virtual program, offering a valuable experience to aspiring technologists. By incorporating international students and fostering a nimble approach, Girls Who Code ensures that it continues to meet the needs of its students in a rapidly changing environment.
Closing the Gap
Closing the gender gap in the tech industry is a pressing issue that resonates deeply with Tarika, especially as a mother of a teenage daughter. Failing to address the disparity hampers girls’ preparedness for future jobs and denies them the quality of life and upward mobility that tech career opportunities can provide. The tech sector offers many opportunities, with half a million new tech jobs predicted by 2029. Furthermore, these jobs offer competitive salaries, with the median wage in tech double the national median wage.
But there is an alarming trend of young women, particularly women of color, dropping out of the tech pipeline. Currently, women constitute only 26% of the computing workforce, and this representation diminishes further for Black and Latinx women, who account for just over 5% combined. These statistics do not reflect a lack of skills or interest among girls and women; they stem from cultural beliefs and stereotypes that persist from elementary school to the workforce. The absence of role models further compounds the issue, resulting in 50% of women leaving the tech industry by age 35.
The consequences of this gender gap are far-reaching and visible in everyday news stories. Examples include technology products overlooking crucial information about women’s health or facial recognition software incorrectly identifying individuals. These instances highlight the urgent need for a more diverse tech industry. Girls Who Code recognizes these challenges and actively works towards fostering diversity in tech to ensure it reflects the diversity of society.
The organization advocates for transparency and authenticity in conversations about diversity and equity in the tech industry. It encourages companies to reflect on their credentialing, hiring practices, and promotion policies, prioritizing diversity in gender and race. Addressing these issues may be challenging and requires unique solutions for each company, but dismantling long-held practices that favor elitism and privilege is crucial.
Shaking Things Up
Girls Who Code also challenges traditional notions of academic success and recruitment processes. It believes academic profiles differ among students, especially those from historically underrepresented groups. Narrow measures such as academic credentials fail to capture the full potential of young women and women of color. By re-evaluating the recruitment process and considering alternative credentials, they aim to provide equal opportunities for all aspiring technologists.
In addition to their Clubs and high-school level programs, Girls Who Code offers Work Prep, a two-week virtual program that removes barriers for college-aged students. Participants gain insights into the tech industry and interact with women working in tech. The program’s asynchronous and synchronous learning components consider the responsibilities these young women already shoulder, making it more accessible and accommodating. Work Prep and similar initiatives create touchpoints that allow young women to envision themselves in tech roles and facilitate their transition into internships and jobs.
Girls Who Code Clubs serve as inspirational places where girls gather after school to learn, support each other, and explore the world of coding. The curriculum accommodates anyone as a facilitator, ensuring that facilitators learn alongside the students. Clubs engage the students in coding lessons covering various languages and highlight women’s experiences in tech through spotlights. Additionally, Clubs foster a spirit of problem-solving and making a positive impact. Students identify issues in their communities and use technology to develop innovative solutions.
Tarika emphasizes the importance of individuals addressing the gender gap in tech. She encourages pushing back against stereotypes and urges individuals to start Girls Who Code Clubs in their communities. Clubs operate on a free after-school model. The organization is dedicated to expanding its reach. It invites individuals to visit the Girls Who Code website to learn more about starting a Girls Who Code Club in their community.
Girls Who Code has served 580,000 students over the last decade, including 185,000 college and career-aged alumni. Tarika encourages tech and business leaders to consider hiring these incredible individuals, emphasizing their potential for positive transformations within companies and the world.