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Building programs encouraging diversity in technology: Educate Maine and Girls Who Code

September 26, 2022

As we have written about in previous posts, the U.S. labor shortage that has arisen in the wake of COVID-19 has impacted various industries’ capacity to retain and hire necessary staff. As of now, unemployment has decreased since February 2020 in all fifty states. While a reduction in unemployed Americans is positive in many ways, those trying to hire in technology fields continue to suffer from a serious shortage of talent. Susan Dominus reported earlier this year in the New York Times, “Technology workers need court no one: Along with microchips, toilet paper and Covid tests, tech workers will be recalled as one of the great, pressing shortages of this pandemic. Estimates of the unemployment rates for tech workers are about 1.7 percent, compared with roughly 4 percent in the general economy.”  At the same time this staffing crunch is happening, many companies are focused on hiring a diverse workforce, with more women and more people of color recruited to fill open technology positions. Non-profit organizations such as Educate Maine and Girls Who Code are playing a key role in helping companies like WEX mitigate the difficult hiring market while also increasing the diversity of our workforce.

What can organizations do to increase female engagement in technology education?

Young women at a Girls Who Code event at WEX

Young women at a Girls Who Code event at WEX

In response to these trends and our business needs, WEX has partnered with Educate Maine and Girls Who Code. WEX’s mission with this partnership is to develop engaging programming in Maine to capture the imaginations of K-12 students who might not otherwise be exposed to technology as an educational option and subsequent career possibility.

Girls Who Code, and local nonprofits like Educate Maine, help to make the goals of this diversity-in-technology movement achievable. “Our priorities for our partnerships in the community, including Girls Who Code and WEX, are about closing the gender gap in tech and promoting more diverse teams,” says Angela Oechslie, program director at Educate Maine.

Middle school students at a Girls Who Code summer event

Middle school students at a Girls Who Code summer event

Part of Educate Maine’s mission is to build a more diverse and equitable workforce across the state. Their equity statement maps their goals out in plain language: “All Maine people must have access to a quality education that provides them with the knowledge and skills required for a career and economic success. Education opportunities should not depend upon geography, income, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, race or ethnicity. Ensuring access and removing barriers will lead to greater equity, a stronger economy, and will allow Maine to achieve our common and state mandated goal: by 2025, 60% of Mainers will hold education and workforce credentials that position Maine and its families for success.“  Supporting Educate Maine’s mission, and our common values regarding DEI, WEX continues to strive to be a community partner in the areas in which we live and work.

How can organizations like Educate Maine partner with national non-profits to build opportunities for girls in technology?

Girls Who Code collaborating on WEX's rooftop space

Girls Who Code collaborating on WEX’s rooftop space

Oechslie leads a program at Educate Maine called Project Login which brings information technology and computer science education opportunities to residents of Maine across the state, including both K-12 and adult education. Project Login trains teachers to be facilitators and helps them implement computer science learning in their classrooms. Educate Maine’s employer partners, including WEX, Systems Engineering, and IDEXX, are engaged in developing longer-term strategic workforce development initiatives with Project Login.

Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit partner of Educate Maine, traditionally offers a club model to its partner organizations across the US. In conjunction with school-year programs, Girls Who Code runs a virtual summer immersion program. As the community partner in Maine, Oechslie felt passionate about expanding that summer immersion program into an in-person camp experience for young women in the state. She also envisioned the impact the summer program could have on school-age girls and non-binary students who didn’t have the opportunity to attend. Her vision was to have those who did attend become ambassadors for the cause. After their summer experience, for example, attendees are encouraged to launch tech clubs within their schools.

How partnering with area businesses helps engage girls in technology

Building a Bot with Girls Who Code

Building a Bot with Girls Who Code

There were Girls Who Code camps offered in Portland at Roux/WEX, Bridgton at the Magic Lantern Innovation Center, Skowhegan, and Lewiston. Girls who attended the Roux Institute session, in downtown Portland, were invited to meet with WEX executives and members of the Women in Technology (WIT) employee resource group (ERG) at WEX’s downtown office. Campers met with members of WEX’s executive leadership team and heard from them and from WIT members about what career paths they took to get to where they are today, what roadblocks they encountered, and what inspiration they found along the way.

WIT member and WEX data scientist, Rachel Carpenter, shared with the campers that she had a math teacher growing up who encouraged her to develop her natural ability in math. She wasn’t getting encouragement of this kind from any other corner in her life–that one teacher had been instrumental in pushing her towards the career that she finds so fulfilling today. Carpenter believes that planting a seed of an idea for girls that they can find support from many different corners might make a big difference in a young girl’s life.

Empowering girls to pursue technology projects that excite and engage them

Girls Who Code event sponsors

Girls Who Code event sponsors

During each session of the Girls Who Code summer program, kids decide what kind of coding project they want to work on during their time at the camp. At various sessions in different locations across the state in summer 2022, teams learned Python, worked with Sphero robots, created projects with a Micro:bit, and there was a team that built a wireless bluetooth speaker using both engineering and coding skills. It’s important to Oechslie that the girls feel empowered and tackle something that gets them excited.

Opening doors for young women who might never have considered a career in tech

Oechslie is inspired to see the types of opportunities that these young Mainers are now open to because they went through a Girls Who Code experience. “There are doors that are opening. I’m passionate about closing the gender gap in tech and helping kids down the path to working in a tech field. I also want to level the playing field. No matter your zip code, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, you can learn to code.” Beyond the camp, Oechslie facilitated connecting Maine teachers to Girls Who Code to be provided with the tools to start coding camps in their schools across the state. One example of an opportunity Oechslie’s partnership created for Maine teachers was a Girls Who Code grant. The organization is offering any educator affiliated with Educate Maine a $300 grant toward starting a coding camp at their school. It’s these kinds of financial incentives that can facilitate change and develop support around young women learning about technology from every corner of our state.

Girls Who Code providing community and learning

Girls Who Code providing community and learning

Alaina Cellini, Chair of WIT, and manager of data analytics and strategy at WEX can easily imagine the impact of this programming on her former self. “I would have loved something like this in middle school,” she says. Cellini describes growing up in a household with little interest in technology and math. “My family was not into technology at all. My mom got her first cell phone when I got my first cell phone – – which was my freshman year in high school when my mom was in her 40s.” They had a computer shared by six family members. Fast forward to accepted students days when Cellini was trying to decide which college to attend. She remembers feeling intimidated attending events for the universities to which she’d been accepted where she would have studied computer science. She looked around her and saw a sea of boys – not a girl in sight. While Cellini did not have a Girls Who Code experience growing up, she loves the fact that she can hopefully help be that mentor for some young person who might be in a similar situation.

How mature technology professionals mentoring young women in tech may cause that hoped for shift toward gender neutrality in tech

Christian Spencer recently reported in The Hill that while female students tend to perform better than boys in math, lower confidence and fewer female role models mean that many do not pursue STEM careers. This is according to a recent study from Third Space Learning.

Spencer reports, “In a survey asking 1,000 students to describe their mathematics skills from excellent down to poor, male students who described themselves as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ students did worse in math than female students who rated themselves ‘average’ or even ‘poor.’”

Forty-six percent of female respondents to the Third Space Learning study said that part of the reason they didn’t pursue STEM-related jobs was because they did not have mentors when they were kids. WEX’s partnership with Educate Maine and Girls Who Code is trying to change that, and Cellini and Carpenter’s WEX Women in Technology group is at the ready to provide Maine girls with crucial, long-lasting mentorships.

As WEX continues to expand globally and advance its technology offerings, one important requirement for growth is ensuring a talent base to support the company’s strategic goals. Additionally, WEX strives to create a more diverse employee base which makes partnerships such as the ones WEX has with Educate Maine and Girls Who Code even more aligned with the company’s strategic goals. WEX and Educate Maine agree that technology education can be a great equalizing force for traditionally underrepresented communities, while also helping to address the gap in available talent needed to meet the increasing technical workforce needs.

If you’re interested in working for a growing global organization, please visit WEX’s career page.

New York Times
The Hill
Girls Who Code
Educate Maine
Third Space Learning
US Bureau of Labor Statistics

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