“I’ve got nothing to do today but smile.” Simon and Garfunkel
Meet Anagha Krishnan, founder of TheGirlCodeProject, which aims to “debug the Girl Code” by leveraging computer science to teach young girls self-efficacy. She is a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar and Stamps President’s Scholar at Georgia Tech.
Fun Fact: Anagha loves eating broccoli because it makes her feel like a giant eating little trees.
Song that makes Anagha want to dance:
“Someone Singing Along” by James Blunt
“So, as you can see, the Earth’s Field MRI, which is one-thousandth of the price of a conventional MRI, provides sufficient image quality for copper chloride imaging. Thus, it can be a viable option for inexpensive disease detection in third-world countries. That concludes my presentation; does anyone have any questions?”
I heaved a sigh of relief, letting my tense shoulders relax. I had just finished presenting my research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2016 conference in Washington D.C. It had been the culmination of years of research in a biophysics lab at UT Dallas and UT Southwestern—countless hours of machining MRI parts, creating copper chloride samples, and analyzing MRI images. As I looked into the audience, I didn’t think I could feel prouder.
A woman raised her hand in the back. “Why are you here?”
In my naivete, I couldn’t help thinking that it was such an easy question to answer. “Well, I’m here presenting my research.” Duh.
“No,” she replied. “My son is also presenting here. There don’t seem to be many girls here. Don’t you think your time would be better spent at dance classes? Or cheerleading?”
A lot of people turned around and glared at her, but I was too startled to say anything. I struggled to recollect my thoughts and just moved on to the next question.
Days later, my mind was reeling. How could she say something like that? My mother, who couldn’t attend the conference with me, was very angry when she heard the story. “That’ is absolutely ridiculous,” she said, “You can do both. You can do whatever you want to do.”
It was then that I realized the bubble I had been living in. I had been lucky enough to grow up surrounded by strong women in the sciences: my mother was a computer science consultant, my aunt was a science professor, and my eldest cousin worked at the NIH. In my mind, women were just as capable as men were.
As the bubbles popped, I began to see my life as a female engineer from a whole new perspective. I began noticing the little things that I had previously ignored. Like how it terrified me to raise my hand in class, but the boys in my class would blurt out completely incorrect answers all the time. Like how my male cousins were often unknowingly treated as intellectually superior to my female cousins, despite my female cousins holding better jobs. Reading the news only makes me feel worse. Hearing stories about gang rapes in India, child marriage in the Middle East, and body image issues in the Western world made me feel as if there was no hope.
I began to realize that even I, despite having a plethora of astounding female role models to look up to, faced barriers that held me back. I realized that I lacked confidence and self-efficacy; I was never sure of the decisions I was making, and I always felt that I would fail the first time I did anything. I struggled with self-doubt following even the smallest failures, and I often held myself to higher standards than I did the people around me.
I began to wonder how much of this was due to societal gender roles. Women, growing up, are taught to be docile and quiet. Society teaches young women that they must look and act perfect (think of such phrases as ‘Don’t spill anything on your dress” or “Your hair is such a mess.”), and this often leads to women becoming perfectionists in their professional careers and suffering from crippling self-doubt at their first failure. Additionally, society teaches young women to be agreeable; this makes it difficult for women to voice their opinions, especially when they are contrary.
When I took my first computer science class, I realized something. Compared to the biomedical lab that I worked in (where if you made a mistake, you had killed a rather expensive cell-line), mistakes in computer science were frequent and forgivable. If your code errored, the compiler (or the programmer) would find the error and debug their code. Errors were not only okay, but often helpful, as they pointed out larger errors in logic and helped diagnose problems the user might face. Computer science often fostered teamwork and assertiveness as well (many times, it was easy to show that you could solve the same problem in less lines of code).
I realized that the lack of women in technical fields in higher education was a symptom of a greater issue: the fact that we don’t teach girls to be confident and assertive the way we teach boys to. I began to wonder if we could use STEM to teach young women confidence and assertiveness—the building blocks of self-efficacy that studies have shown keep women in STEM.
To that end, I started an organization, TheGirlCodeProject, which aims to “debug the Girl Code” by leveraging computer science to teach young girls self-efficacy. The program targets middle-school girls (particularly from under-represented ethnic and economic groups) because middle school is the time when girls begin to doubt their capabilities compared to boys. In our program, the girls learn the basics of game design in GameMaker, spend a summer designing a game designed to promote less-accessible STEM fields (such as biomedical or aerospace engineering) to other girls, and demo their games for judges. Through the program, the girls not only learn the basics of computer science, but they also develop resiliency, confidence, assertiveness, problem-solving, and team-building skills. We are funded by the Google igniteCS program, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and Georgia Tech’s Create-X program, and in two years, we have mentored over fifty young women. More information about TheGirlCodeProject can be found at our website, www.thegirlcodeproject.com.
I truly feel that TheGirlCodeProject is helping young women develop the skills that will help them succeed not only in STEM, but in any field they choose to pursue (self-efficacy is a skill you need no matter what you choose to do). It has helped me develop my own confidence and resilience; I am no longer scared to voice my contrary opinions or make mistakes, and I will continue to be assertive and powerful until I get the things that I need to succeed.
Women, historically and in the present-day, face many setbacks, but I am confident that, with the support of each other, we won’t just break the glass ceiling, but we will demolish it.
Learn more about Anagha!
Personal Website: http://www.anaghak.com