Reshma Saujani: Can Coding Help Girls Take Risks? Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani offers a creative solution to gently push young women into making bold decisions. Her program aims to close the gender gap in computer science.
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Can Coding Help Girls Take Risks?

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Can Coding Help Girls Take Risks?

Can Coding Help Girls Take Risks?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Speaking of nudging kids, do you remember when you were a kid and then trying something that you you weren't very good at and then just completely quitting?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Yes.

RAZ: What was it?

SAUJANI: Gymnastics.

RAZ: (Laughter) What what happened?

SAUJANI: I just - I couldn't do a cartwheel. In - then I just stopped doing it. And I - it's funny. It's, like, even at age 40, it sits with me.

RAZ: Maybe you can relate to Reshma Saujani when Russian was young she would gravitate to things that she was naturally good at.

SAUJANI: I feel like when I was young, if I didn't do something right the first, second, third or fourth time, I would get frustrated and I would give up. And then I would go do the thing that I was good.

RAZ: At Reshma says for her - for a lot of girls, that was OK.

SAUJANI: So maybe if you have a 10-year-old and she's taking gymnastics and she's horrible at it, you'll pull her out and you'll put her in softball.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAUJANI: So she never goes through the process of knowing what it's like to be really bad at gymnastics.

RAZ: Whereas, Reshma says, think about how we treat boys, how we almost expect them, at some point or another, to be really bad at something.

SAUJANI: You know, as I've been thinking about with my son, you know, he's 14 months old. He's not walking yet. Everyone's like, well, boys do everything late, right? Boys talk late. Boys walk late. Boys crawl late. Boys don't do well in school, right? - not in middle school, not in high school, not in college. But then, how did they end up running the world? I think the thing is is that from a very young age, we start shielding our girls.

RAZ: Today, Reshma runs an organization dedicated to not doing that, but rather to nudging girls toward risks and to learn from failure. We'll hear more about that in a few minutes. But first, here's a little bit from Reshma's TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAUJANI: So many women I talk to tell me that they gravitate towards careers in professions that they know they're going to be great in, that they know they're going to be perfect in. And it's no wonder why. Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They're taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A's.

Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst. And by the time they're adults - and whether they're negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they're habituated to take risk after risk. They're rewarded for it. It's often said, in Silicon Valley, no one even takes you seriously unless you've had two failed startups. In other words, we're raising our girls to be perfect. And we're raising our boys to be brave. Some people worry about our federal deficit. But I worry about our bravery deficit. Our economy, our society - we're just losing out because we're not raising our girls to be brave.

In the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck looked at how bright fifth graders handled an assignment that was too difficult for them. She found that bright girls were quick to give up. The higher the IQ, the more likely they were to give up. Bright boys, on the other hand, found the difficult material to be a challenge. They found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts.

What's going on? Well, at the fifth-grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So it's not a question of ability. The difference is in how boys and girls approach a challenge. And it doesn't just end in fifth grade. An HP report found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications. But women? Women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications - 100 percent. This study is usually invoked as evidence that, well, women need a little more confidence. But I think it's evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they're overly cautious.

(APPLAUSE)

SAUJANI: Even when we're ambitious, even when we're leaning in, that socialization of perfection has caused us to take less risks in our careers. And so those 600,000 jobs that are open right now in computing and tech? Women are being left behind. And it means our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave instead of socialized to be perfect.

RAZ: And Reshma knows this because, again, she was that girl, the girl who always tried to be perfect. She went to Yale Law School, public policy school at Harvard and followed that up with jobs at big law firms and hedge funds.

SAUJANI: For 33 years, I'd made a series of choices based on what I thought I should do to, quote, "have the perfect resume, the perfect credential," right - the perfect exterior. And it was killing me inside.

RAZ: Even though Reshma seemed to be successful, she was feeling totally empty. So around 2010, she decided she wanted to help people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAUJANI: Because I believe that people can still make a difference and that we need to have new leadership and new ideas. Washington is fundamentally broken.

RAZ: Reshma decided to run for Congress in her New York City district against a powerful and entrenched incumbent.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And Carolyn Maloney, who is a veteran incumbent in New York has got a primary challenge from Reshma Saujani, a...

RAZ: So did people think you were crazy?

SAUJANI: Everybody. Consultants told me I was crazy. Like, other, you know, female leaders told me I was crazy. I'm sure there were friends who thought I was nuts.

RAZ: But she did it anyway. And she lost - pretty badly.

SAUJANI: It was brutal.

RAZ: But the whole experience, it made Reshma realize she didn't have to be perfect, that she could take a big risk, fail and recover.

SAUJANI: You know, I let myself cry and to feel horrible and be depressed. And - but I also, like, kept thinking for about, like, I'm going to help people. And how am I going to do that?

RAZ: And so Reshma started to think about all the people she met while running for Congress. And she got an idea.

SAUJANI: I mean, I'd been on a campaign trail. And you'd visit schools and talk to parents. And I would see dozens of boys that were clamoring to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

RAZ: Like, you would go to a computer lab at schools?

SAUJANI: Yeah, I'd go visit their science classes or their computer science classes or their robotics classes and talk to teachers. And I would see, like, boys and boys and boys and boys.

RAZ: Just boys?

SAUJANI: Just boys. And I was, like, where are the girls?

RAZ: Yeah.

SAUJANI: You know, I was like - what's going on?

RAZ: Reshma Saujani returns in just a moment with her idea for nudging more girls into those computer labs and why she thinks that that could lead to more women in Congress, in C-level suites and in Silicon Valley.

SAUJANI: So by the end, you are a master of failure. Then you feel like - wow, like, I've been taught how to take risks.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. Our show today, Nudge. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Nudge, ideas about how small tweaks can often change human behavior and the choices we make. And we've been hearing from Reshma Saujani, whose idea is that for too long, we've been nudging boys and only boys toward computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Some people have big plans after school. Know what Elliot's going to do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Jeff, too?

SAUJANI: In the '80s is when you started marketing the personal computer as a boy's toy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Elliot's at work on a book report using Scripsit on Radio Shack's Color Computer 3. It hooks up to his TV.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And Jeff's at his Radio Shack Color Computer 3 playing the newest football game.

RAZ: OK. It does not take a lot of time on YouTube to find computer ads from the '80s that are all about boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: So even though you bought it to help you work at home, your kid will want to use it for his own homework. Of course, if all else fails, there's one last thing you can try. Get him an Apple of his own.

SAUJANI: And, you know, when you talk to entrepreneurs, they'll say my father or my mother gave me a computer when I was 12 years old. And I tore it apart. And boom, I created Facebook.

RAZ: And now I'm a genius.

SAUJANI: Right, and now I'm a genius. And so culture highly influenced young girls and parents about career options for young girls.

RAZ: And so in 2012, Reshma started a company called Girls Who Code to teach high school girls how to code and how to get comfortable with imperfection. Here's Reshma on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAUJANI: Coding, it's an endless process of trial and error, of trying to get the right command in the right place with sometimes just a semicolon making the difference between success and failure. Code breaks and then it falls apart. And it often takes many, many tries until that magical moment when what you're trying to build comes to life. It requires perseverance.

It requires imperfection. We immediately see in our program our girls' fear of not getting it right, of not being perfect. Every Girls Who Code teacher tells me the same story. During the first week, when the girls are learning how to code, a student will call her over. And she'll say, I don't know what code to write. The teacher will look at her screen. And she'll see a blank text editor.

If she didn't know any better, she'll think that her students spent the past 20 minutes just staring at the screen. But if she presses undo a few times, she'll see that her student wrote code and then deleted it. Instead of showing the progress that she made, she'd rather show nothing at all - perfection or bust.

When we teach girls to be brave, they will build incredible things. And I see this every day. Take, for instance, the Syrian refugee who dares show her love for her new country by building an app to help Americans get to the polls, or a 16-year-old girl who built an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant in the off chance that she can save her daddy's life because he has cancer.

These are examples of thousands - thousands of girls who've been socialized to be imperfect, who've learned to keep trying, who've learned perseverance. And whether they become coders or the next Hillary Clinton or Beyonce, they will not defer their dreams.

RAZ: That's just incredible. So at this point, how many girls have gone through the program?

SAUJANI: So by the end of this year, we'll cumulatively have reached 40,000 girls.

RAZ: Do you know if any of these girls have gone to study computer science in college?

SAUJANI: Yes, so 90 percent of our graduates are going on to major or minor in computer science.

RAZ: Wow. I mean, if you think of, like, a line of code as this precise thing, and you change just one thing in that line of code, it's a completely different language.

SAUJANI: Yeah.

RAZ: And it's almost like your nudge, right? Like, your nudge is just changing one semicolon, and the result of that is you're saying to girls, you don't have to be perfect. Like, this is fine. You can totally, like, mess this up, and it's OK.

SAUJANI: And who knows what the nudge is going to lead you to, right? Like, had I not run that race, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you. And, like, for our girls, like, had you not learned how to code and, like, sat through that exercise of utter frustration, like, you're on a completely different path now.

RAZ: Yeah, 'cause it's a simple change. It's not actually that hard, right?

SAUJANI: No, it's not that hard at all. And I think you're right. It's, like, a nudge that can have massive consequences. I mean, this is, like, the big secret. You can convert girls pretty quickly.

RAZ: Yeah.

SAUJANI: Like, you just have to show them what it is and what they can do with it and how they can make a difference, and they're like, I love it. I mean, you can, like, close the gender gap in our lifetime. It's absolutely possible and doable.

RAZ: Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. You can see her entire talk at ted.npr.org.

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