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September 16, 2017

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Program breaking the glass ceiling for girls

PIN ZHEN, 23, was worried that jobs related to her major are likely to be soon filled by artificial intelligence.

The communication engineering and electronic information engineering major found that many of her peers left the industry as they have been replaced by machines.

When she was confused about her major and future, she bumped into “Teach Girls Coding,” a free online program that was launched this summer.

“It’s like typing was a job, but now it is just a basic skill,” says Pin. “And I believe that programming will be a popular industry for a long time to come.”

The “Teach Girls Coding” program ( opened a new door for her. Providing free online courses on almost every frequently used programming language, the courses helped Pin catch up with her postgraduate study. And it is a program especially for women, encouraging them to break the male monopoly on the information technology industry.

Over the past two months, more than 60,000 females over 14 around the country have signed up for the program, which was launched by Chen Bin, a former programmer and an IT educator.

Formerly at Microsoft, the 35-year-old was part of the development of Windows 7. Now he operates Coding Garden, a company focusing on teaching children coding.

In May, Chen published on Weibo, one of China’s largest social networking services, that he was planning a free coding-teaching program especially for women. The post soon received wide feedback, and when the program was officially launched in July, the number of registrations soared.

“The program is very friendly for beginners, and it made me see clearly the path I want to take for my career,” says Pin.

Now Pin is more confident about her master’s degree on advanced computer sciences, and she won an internship at AT&T, thanks to the learning from the program, to maintain a database for the company.

The Chinese name of Teach Girls Coding is “Chengxu Yuan” (程序媛), the same pronunciation with the word “programmer,” but here yuan is replaced by another homophonic character that means “pretty girls,” indicating that girls can be programmers as well.

Chen says that what inspired him was a recent competition in Japan. When he and his young students attended a robot competition for children, he found that only 10 percent on the Chinese and Japanese teams were girls. He was shocked that even in Japan, where technology is advanced, girls were still not much involved in studying programming.

“But in fact, in the competition the performance of the girls was as good as the boys,” he says. “Some of the girls won silver medals.”

Chen says many parents still hold on to the concept that boys and girls should develop different hobbies.

“Programming is a process of adventure as well as learning from mistakes,” says Chen. “Parents still believe that girls should be quiet and pursue a stable life.”

The stereotypes are not just confined to East Asia. James Damore, a former Google engineer, was fired over a notorious memo criticizing the company’s diversity policy.

“I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership,” he wrote.

Chen disagrees strongly, based on his own experience. When he worked for Microsoft, his manager was a woman, and he didn’t find anything weird about it.

“She was very professional and even more hardworking than her male counterparts,” he says. “In fact, in my career the women programmers I worked with were all professional and I didn’t find them different from men.”

Chen believes that while information technology companies are willing to recruit more women programmers, it is actually difficult to find enough candidates.

“For many companies, when they recruit programmers, at least 90 percent of the interviewees are men,” says Chen.

He believes that with the program, the situation might change. The program and apps for various mobile platforms teaches programming languages such as CSS, HTML5, JavaScript and Python through problem-based learning. Learners are divided into groups to work project by project. The program also has an online forum for learners to exchange ideas.

“If learners keep up with the courses, they will reach a professional level. After all, many experienced programmers succeeded through self-study,” says Chen. “But our biggest goal is enlightenment and to tell the girls that there is more than one path to take in life.”

As the program is beginner-friendly, many junior high school students have registered as well.

Tan Ruopian, a 13-year-old student at Shenzhen High School in southern China’s Guangdong Province, says her teacher recommended the program to students at the school.

“We had an information technology course back in elementary school, but all it taught was how to use the Internet and certain social media apps,” says Tan. “I was very interested in computer sciences but didn’t know where to learn.”

Tan spent two months on the program and didn’t find it hard to make progress.

“Some of my friends are studying as well,” she says. “I hope there will be more girls joining us.”

The program received widespread attention on the Internet and soon it received support from institutions. Sony China Co Ltd provided a robot-coding course and promotes this program for free on its social media accounts. Some other information technology companies are expected to join Sony, too.

“I declined all the financial support, though,” says Chen. “Once I accept money from others, I would have to spend energy on accounting and financial issues. So now that I can still afford the program, I will do it by myself.”

Chen says he is considering cooperating with more authorities so that learners can acquire recognized certificates.

What’s ironic is that although it has been made clear that the program is for women, some men tried to sneak onto the website and learn the courses.

Chen admits that it is hard to detect if all the learners are women, and some men did actually log onto the forum and claimed that “we are men but we also find the course helpful.”

Of course, Chen says, those who went to show off on the forums were banned and their accounts were deactivated.

Such actions were called out on the Internet, as people said “these men never spoke out when women are discriminated against for their gender, but tried harder than anyone to take advantage of loopholes.”


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