Paving a Path for Girls on NYC’s Digital Frontier

Michelle Michalos |

Students from across the metropolitan area attended this year's DigiGirlz conference in New York, which featured three break out sessions focused on STEM education, digital branding and careers, and a Microsoft technology showcase. MetroFocus/Michelle Michalos

The technology industry has long been considered a boys’ club, a stereotype perpetuated by popular culture as well as the faces of technology companies represented in the media.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology’s “Sit With Me” campaign, which raises awareness for women in technology by encouraging women in the field to share their stories, women hold only 25 percent of all technology and computing jobs, though they fill more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S.

New York City is taking the lead in recognizing the enormous potential women present for the technology sector by encouraging girls to get involved in the field from an early age.  “Information technology is a growth industry that changes almost every day,” says Geraldine Sweeney, senior associate commissioner of New York City’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT), who as a keynote speaker, addressed a crowd of high school girls on Friday, April 20 at Microsoft’s DigiGirlz Day in Manhattan.

“There are more jobs than there are professionals to fill them and that will continue to be the case tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future.  To keep pace with this evolving field, it’s essential for young women to pursue tech-related learning skills.”

DigiGirlz Day is an event Microsoft started in 2000 and has since grown to multiple locations worldwide, including at its offices in New York City, since 2003.  DigiGirlz Day stresses the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and gives girls the opportunity to interact with women leaders in technology so they can learn more about careers in the field.  The day also introduces them to some of Microsoft’s cutting-edge new consumer technologies, such as the Microsoft Surface, a multi-touch surface table that runs numerous applications and allows multiple users to engage at the same time. The DigiGirlz program also extends to “High Tech Camps” across the country and online courses.

At the STEM education break out session, computer science teacher Lizabath Arum from Saint Ann's School and MakerBot Industries introduced one of MakerBot's 3D printers to the students. MetroFocus/Michelle Michalos

“When we first started, we had one classroom of young women in high school who were interested in a career in technology. We’ve expanded now to over 100 young women from across the metropolitan area, including New Jersey,” says Antuan Santana, an operations and community manager at Microsoft who manages the New York DigiGirlz event. This year, the 100 or so student participants hailed from 13  schools.

“This did change how I look at technology,” shared Nadia Mushib, a student at Preston High School in the Bronx. ” I thought it was mostly boring and didn’t care, but this event really changed my perspective.”

The events partners included Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, which presented a career panel; United Way of Essex and West Hudson, which opened the event to girls who may not have previously considered careers in technology; and the New York City Department of Education, including members of the Academy For Software Engineering, a new public high school that opens this fall in Union Square. Both Pace and United Way host high school outreach programs that target high school students and also try to create awareness around STEM.

Yvonne Williams, a program analyst for the Academy For Software Engineering who led the panel on STEM education at DigiGirlz, says that of the nearly 1,000 applicants that applied to the academy’s first class this fall, one-third were female, and the school hopes to maintain an even gender balance in their student population. Geared towards students studying computer science, the school will also provide a rigorous academic program beyond technology to prepare students for college. The academy will also focus on connecting tech-inclined students to jobs and internships.


The Academy For Software Engineering, which opens in the fall of 2012, was founded by venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, and Mike Zamansky, a computer science teacher at Stuyvesant High School. The academy will occupy the current Washington Irving High School building, along with five other schools. Video courtesy of MakerBot Industries.

The Academy For Software Engineering is one of the at least 12 schools focusing on career and technical education that Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to open by the end of 2013, when his third and final term ends. “It’s a very exciting time to be involved with any aspect of technology in New York City because there is so much attention going towards it,” says Williams. “It’s really positive that the Mayor’s Office is very clearly behind not only the Academy For Software Engineering, but other initiatives to help all of us become technology savvy and teach the computer literacy skills that will be so relevant in coming years, especially for younger generations.”

Another initiative working to educate girls and promote STEM education is Girls Who Code, a new organization which aims to teach young girls from underserved communities in New York City a coding language and inspire them to enter STEM careers. Founded by Reshma Saujani (formerly of the New York City Office of the Public Advocate), the organization will launch a summer program this July. It’s geared towards 13- to 17-year old girls, each of whom will be paired with a skilled coder or successful entrepreneur mentor from a New York City company.

“The biggest impact programs like DigiGirlz make is in providing real core role models for young women, where role models may not currently exist,” says Santana. “Examples of female leaders in technology that can make technology and the industry relatable to these young women.” Hopefully, with the help of Microsoft and schools like the Academy For Software Engineering, girls will recognize their full potential to succeed in a field they may have previously seen as off limits.

Laima Tazmin, a speaker at DigiGirlz Day who founded her own website design company as a freshman in high school, may have put it best when she quoted Steve Jobs: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you … the minute that you understand that you can poke life…that you can change it, you can mold it…that’s maybe the most important thing.”

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.

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