Interview

Teaching Girls to Code with Isabel Sieh

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Girls Will Code’s founder and CEO shares her thoughts on the future of women in tech.

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It all started with an 11-year-old girl. Five years later, Girls Will Code has grown into one of the most exciting youth-led organizations in the Philippines; a country-wide community of young girls with a passion for tech. In a global field traditionally dominated by men, Girls Will Code has one simple aim: to help close the gender gap by encouraging young girls in the Philippines to code.

At the center of its rapid growth is coder and tech enthusiast Isabel Sieh, Girls Will Code’s founder and CEO, who has taken her unexpected popularity in stride to stay focused on the community’s goal of providing every girl an opportunity to learn how to code.

Isabel talks to us about the value of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and its ability to empower young girls.

On her love for coding

ISABEL: When I was around 10 years old, my teacher saw that I was really interested in math, and he suggested that I [try out] coding. So I looked into it. . . I basically searched things like “How to learn to code” online. The first thing I found was a website called Code Academy, that [had resources for] learning coding.

From there, I started learning HTML/CSS, [and] it was really interesting to me because I saw how I could create whatever I wanted. At the time, I [also] loved playing games on my phone, and I suddenly realized that I had the power to create those games that I loved. It was really cool for me to see all the things that I could do with coding.

Girls coding along a path, illustration by Kitt Santos


On creating Girls Will Code

ISABEL: When I first told my mom that I was interested in coding, we tried to find a club, [in the same way] that if you’re interested in tennis, you’d join the tennis club. But we couldn’t find any coding clubs online here in the Philippines, especially for young girls. It was really irritating because I wanted a group of people I shared the same interests with!

I later found a set of clubs in the US called Girls Who Code, and I reached out to ask if I could establish [a local chapter] in the Philippines. They responded that [while] they weren’t looking to branch out internationally, they’d be happy for me to start my own club.

I started my own [version,] Girls Will Code, as a student club in my school. Eventually, we grew into [a community] that could reach out to people outside our school. We [began holding] workshops outside of school, then inviting people from around [the country] to come and learn coding.

Learning within a community is also really important in helping you actually go through the process.

On starting young

ISABEL: Our main target is young girls, aged 11 to 17, because. . . I believe junior and senior high are the most important years in determining the path that [a young person] takes in the future. In a lot of schools, you’re required to choose different strands like STEM and AD (art and design), and so that age is critical in showing girls the different paths you can take.

Here in the Philippines, I think a lot of people just aren’t aware of the different tech or sciences paths that are available to them, and I feel that if we just bring more awareness to these things, it will encourage more people to go into these fields. There’s a study by Microsoft—it was based in Europe, but I think it applies all the same—that showed girls gain an interest in STEM at the age of 11, but then lose [interest] at around 15. That gap is really important in sustaining their interest.

On cultivating a learning community

ISABEL:  I think there’s only so much of what you can learn online. Like right now, I’m learning Physics in school, and as much as I can read textbooks and search online, there’s nothing better than when a teacher or one of my classmates can explain something to me. It becomes so much clearer.

When I first started coding by myself, it was really difficult because when I would stumble across a problem, the only way I could solve it was to look it up online. This was good during the first few times, but as I tried to apply what I learned, I found it hard because a lot of it was very [limited]; it wasn’t necessarily the best understanding of what I was learning. [In that regard,] it’s good to have someone who can see and understand what you’re going through.

Learning within a community is also really important in helping you actually go through the process. Going back to Physics, in my first year, I sat with a small table of girls—these were the only girls in the whole class!—and if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be motivated to continue studying. They were so helpful, and it’s nice to know there are other people who are [going through] the same thing as you are.

  • CODING AT HOME
  • In the early days of establishing Girls Will Code, Isabel held Saturday morning classes in her living room for girls who were interested in learning how to code. As the demand from people of all ages and genders grew too big for her to accommodate alone, she founded The Coding School, a learning platform that offers programs in coding, web development, data science, and robotics for children (aged 6 to 17) and adults alike. Since the community quarantine took effect in March, The Coding School has moved all of its classes online. Girls Will Code has also launched #CodeSaBahay, an initiative that provides free online materials, made by young girls, for children to learn coding at home. For more information, visit coding.ph or follow Girls Will Code on Facebook and Instagram.


On female representation in STEM

ISABEL: Representation in any field is important, but with STEM more so. While I was learning coding, I realized that coding and technology are literally all around us. Technology and coding have [caused] a big change in the world, and it provides a lot of opportunities for change in the future. That being said, we need proper representation in [the STEM] field in order to properly address global issues. Without [equal] representation, we can’t fully address the needs of our society.

With artificial intelligence (AI), for example: when AI systems are only run by males, and use data that’s [skewed to benefit] males, then the computer systems will have a gender bias that reflects that data. It’s very important that we start to have better representation in the field, otherwise it’ll shift our society’s [behavior].

Girls coding with a laptop, illustration by Kitt Santos
A lot of people just aren’t aware of the different tech or sciences paths that are available to them.

On the growth of the community

ISABEL:  It’s really nice to see [the community of girls interested in STEM] slowly expanding. When we run activities. . . it’s really cool to see people join them out of their own interest. Even on our outreaches, we tend to go to the same schools and invite the same girls, but we [were also able] to see these girls invite their own friends to come and join us.

We also run Girl Forward, which is our annual big event in celebration of the United Nations’s International Day of the Girl. We invite girls from different schools, as well as our best speakers, and it’s a really cool, really fun experience because not only do I see the girls learn [so much], but I also learn a lot myself.

Last year, one of our speakers talked about data security, and I was a bit worried at first because I thought nobody would be interested in something like that. But the talk was super engaging and people loved it! It was so fun to see people come up to the speaker afterwards and ask how they can continue learning about it. I think it’s really cool, and so inspiring to see people get interested in these fields.


On moving forward

ISABEL: When I go to university, I don’t know if I’ll have the same amount of time and dedication towards Girls Will Code, and a lot of the people who initially started it [with me] are people in my grade. We’ll all be going to university soon, so I want to make sure that. . . there are young girls who can run things on their own, and people who can generate ideas and plans to continue to move Girls Will Code forward. We have a team of about 20 people now who I’ve [started] handing down the activities to, and there are a few people I can definitely see as its leaders in the future.

We need proper representation in the STEM field in order to properly address global issues. Without [equal] representation, we can’t fully address the needs of our society.

On coding as a tool to pursue other interests

ISABEL: Even though I’m interested in coding, I also make sure to work on my studies and things like student council work. I’ve also learned to [blend together] different interests like math and coding, or like people who are interested in art and computer science.

Not all of the [team] who run Girls Will Code know coding. They all have other STEM-related interests; everyone has their own different specialties. My sister is on my Girls Will Code team and she heads our media department. They work on making our graphics and materials, which is as crucial as the other parts of our core team.

It can’t just be [about] your passion for coding or STEM; you also have to know how to get your message across. It’s more than just coding—I have to prepare speeches and materials. . . and I’ve learned how to write emails because of Girls Will Code! I also integrate topics from things I’ve learned in school [in our activities], as well.

I think people need to find a realistic way to [pursue] their interests. You need to find a good balance between your personal interests and the fundamentals that you need to learn. And I think in that way, you can achieve so much more, when you see the way they mix together.

  • WOMEN IN STEM
  • Often viewed as the most intimidating branch of academe, STEM has been a male-dominated field of study since its emergence in the 17th century. Despite this, a number of trailblazing women throughout history have made significant contributions to the field. Caroline Herschel When Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) realized she couldn’t get an education at home, she left England to join her brother William in Germany, where he taught her math, science, and astronomy. She would become the first woman to discover a comet (she found eight!), and catalogued stars and nebulae. Her work earned her a medal from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and honorary membership to England’s Royal Astronomical Society. Radia Perlman Radia Perlman had a natural talent for math and science as a child, but never thought she “fit” the image of a typical engineer. She began working with computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and her experience in the AI Lab inspired her to pursue computer programming and network engineering. She’s best known for inventing the algorithm behind Spanning-Tree Protocols (STP), which helps keep today’s Internet up and running. Reina Reyes Reina Reyes’s fascination with the natural world led to a successful career in astrophysics, contributing to groundbreaking research on dark energy, black holes, and even proving Einstein’s theory of general relativity on a cosmic scale. After nearly a decade of research in Europe and the US, she’s returned to the Philippines to pursue both academe and data science, working with experts in different fields to create socially-relevant projects.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Originally published in GRID Volume 09.

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