Closing the gender gap in tech, one line of code at a time

Sixteen-year-old Alison Thompson is helping change the face of technology.

“Anyone can be a programmer – no matter their age, background or gender,” said Thompson, who was among 65 students who participated in the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business.

Raytheon Technologies partnered with the national organization to host five two-week virtual programs for 300 high school girls from across the U.S. and Canada, teaching them critical computer science skills and joining them with a community of women in technology. 

More than 50 women from Raytheon Missiles & Defense participated, many as mentors who shared knowledge from their own careers in digital technology. 

“We need more diversity in digital leadership. Reaching these students early on may help with that,” said Karin McCleery, director of program services at Raytheon Missiles & Defense. “I’m passionate about having these girls feel like they have role models in digital engineering, mentors who are waiting for them when they come into the business world and before.”

Students learned to use the web programming language HTML to build a website and an online personality quiz, and also created a site about a cause or topic important to them.

Thompson’s site dealt with plastics – specifically, how it is recycled, how it can be used to create bioplastics, and which plastics are most popular. A quiz on her site revealed how plastic shows up in unexpected places, like soda cans and paper cups.

“I learned a lot. The teachers were very knowledgeable and helpful when I had problems,” Thompson said. “I loved all of the projects and how we got an increasing amount of flexibility in those projects as the course progressed.” 

In addition to the hands-on experience, the girls also received career advice from a panel of three women in senior positions at Raytheon Missiles & Defense: 

  • Danielle Curcio, vice president of Engineering at Raytheon Missiles & Defense.
  • Kim Ernzen, vice president of Naval Power at Raytheon Missiles & Defense.
  • Mona Bates, vice president of Digital Technology at Raytheon Missiles & Defense.

“I never mapped out my career as a student. I decided to pursue math because that’s what I loved,” Curcio said. “If you're unsure about what to do, start with what you love and go from there.” 

Ernzen spoke of being one of only a few women majoring in aeronautical engineering at Wichita State University in Kansas, and how that motivated her to excel. She graduated in the top tier of her class.

“I had to prove myself every day – prove that I was capable,” Ernzen said. “My background or gender shouldn’t have mattered, but it definitely ignited my competitive spirit.”

It’s also important to know your strengths, be confident and network, Bates said.

“I’m still learning how to sell myself,” Bates said. “Competency and connection are important.” 

Programs like Girls Who Code is doing more than teaching girls to code. It’s building self-confidence, shaping goals and changing culture. 

“I have gotten to see powerful women in STEM – powerful women being leaders – as I’m learning to be one of those leaders myself,” said Sam Schaich, a participant from Georgia, in a review of the event.