Lesley Chard has been coding since she was nine years old.
She credits her father, a high school tech teacher, with giving her the freedom to learn through play — despite the painful consequences.
"I don't know how many times my dad had to format the computer because I had screwed it up to the point of no return," Chard says.
Now she wants to share the opportunities she had with other youth in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Chard is part of the team of female technology professionals behind Digital Waves, a new contest that aims to narrow the gender gap in the province's technology sector.
Digital Waves bills itself as a "digital skills experience" for female and non-binary teenagers, offering virtual workshops in app design and entrepreneurship.
It offers exactly "the steps that app designers and entrepreneurs go through to get a business off the ground," Chard says.
The technology gender gap
According to a report published by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, women compose 23 per cent of the digital labour force in Canada, about half the rate compared to all other occupations.
For many tech careers — software engineers, computer engineers, and computer programmers — that statistic is even lower.
Girls don't see women in these fields and don't see themselves represented.
This imbalance been an observable reality for Chard throughout her career. As one of the only women to graduate from Memorial University's computer science program in 2015, it "wouldn't be uncommon for me to be the only woman in a class of 30 to 40 people," she says.
Today, in her role as as a lead product experience designer at Zorbit's by Carnegie Learning, she faces the challenge of achieving gender parity in her hiring practices. "You have to make a conscious decision to make those ratios better because the talent pool is not fifty-fifty, it is more like ten-ninety," she said.
Trinalynn Porter is a program co-ordinator with the Women in Resource Development Corporation, which is the logistical force behind volunteer-run Digital Waves.
"It goes back to those role models," Porter says. "Girls don't see women in these fields and don't see themselves represented."
Porter sees the perception of gender bias as a deterrent for some girls. "They just don't see themselves as wanting to
fight those battles."
The Digital Waves contest requires no prior tech knowledge to enter. All you need is one good idea. Entrants are invited to answer the question: "How might we make Newfoundland and Labrador more sustainable by using our smartphones?"
By submitting an idea, they enter the contest and receive a registration packet by mail with information on their next steps.
Each participant will then learn to turn their idea into an app, and then how to present it to an audience. The entire experience is conducted remotely, so participants can engage from any part of the province.
"Digital Waves is a one-off experience for now," says Chard, "but we want to connect participants to year-long programming."
She hopes this experience will be a jumping-off point for female and gender-diverse young people, and potentially one day become role models for teenagers just like them.