Nokia interns team up with telecom giant for girls’ coding initiative in Ottawa

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Two Colonel By Secondary School students have teamed up with Nokia’s Ottawa outpost for a new conference aimed at showing girls that coding is not just a boy’s game.

Neha George and Areena Akhter are the founders of Code_Queens, a full-day event for female Ottawa students in grades seven and eight being held at Nokia’s offices in Kanata on Wednesday. The two high school students spent seven weeks in the Finnish telecom giant’s local R&D division this past summer and approached the company about hosting a tech conference to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM.

“The main idea of the event is to break down the stereotypes of coding being boring and being only for guys and being something that women don't belong in,” says George, who herself comes from a high-tech family – her sister and parents all work and study in the industry.

For young girls without familial connections to tech, a STEM career is not always an obvious path. Fewer than one in four engineering graduates aged 25 to 34 in 2011 were women, according to Statistics Canada.

It was a couple years ago at another program geared towards young women in tech, Technovation, that both Akhter and George discovered the confidence that can come with coding.

“We both thought it was a really cool experience to kind of be in charge, have something that we created that was our own,” George says.

But when the two budding programmers got to Nokia this past summer, they saw tech’s gender gap in practice – their teams had very few women on board.

“We saw these problems kind of firsthand. And we decided to do something about it,” George says, at which point Nokia was eager to support its interns’ efforts.

All of the speakers and coaches for the day are women, including Shopify’s Alëna Iouguina and Nokia’s internal gender diversity group, StrongHer, which aims to promote the roles of women inside the company. Having the chance to see and network with role models in tech is key to breaking down preconceptions about what a programmer or engineer looks like, George says.

Code_Queens has attracted 77 student participants and roughly 20 volunteers from schools across Ottawa in its first year. The coding bootcamp will be followed by a technical design competition that will see each group pitch its solution to a panel of judges at the end of the day.

Though both George and Akhter are headed to university at the end of the school year, the Code_Queens co-founders are hoping to stay involved with Nokia and other organizers to turn the conference into an annual event.