Photo: Elli Schroeder (left), 11, works on building a website with her fellow attendees at the Girls Learning Code summer camp at Google Canada’s development office in Waterloo Region.

It’s a rare day when the issue of women in technology doesn’t surface in a news story, blog post or social media discussion.

The reason is simple: Women occupy just 16 per cent of technical roles at Google, Apple and Facebook, a statistic typical of the broader tech sector, and an especially dismal one in an age when equal opportunity and workplace diversity are celebrated as supposed norms of our society.

“The numbers are bad,” Steve Woods, Google Canada’s Senior Engineering Director, said simply to a Waterloo Region audience in June, at an event titled Great People Build Great Companies.

It was heartening, then, to climb the stairs to Google’s Waterloo Region development offices here at the Tannery this week, and find a roomful of people working hard to alleviate the problem – and having a lot of fun in the process.

“To me, this is where the real opportunity is to make an impact,” Kelly McGregor told me, “because it’s actually able to change the ratio.”

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Kelly McGregor (left) is a self-taught developer and volunteer leading this week’s Girls Learning Code summer camp at Google’s Waterloo Region offices. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

McGregor was referring to the region’s first-ever Girls Learning Code summer camp, a five-day gathering she is leading this week, in which girls aged eight to 13 work learn web development skills and build websites around social causes.

Girls Learning Code launched in Toronto in 2012, and grew out of Ladies Learning Code, which started there a year earlier. Ladies Learning code was among 37 organizations worldwide to win a cumulative $1.5 million from the Google RISE Awards this year. The awards are for groups that promote computer science among students.

In four short years, Ladies Learning Code has produced some numbers of its own, and they are heartening: 542 programs in 26 Canadian cities, with beginner-level coding skills imparted to more than 23,000 women and youth.

Its expansion into Waterloo Region is just one example of the group’s continuing growth, which will surely be welcomed by a local ecosystem that’s perennially hungry for talent and in need of greater diversity.

“It’s really hard when you’re an organization and you want to hire women, but you just don’t have the applicants,” McGregor said. “How do you attract them? How do you find them?”

McGregor, a marketing consultant who works with startups on business development, taught herself development skills, but said she “would have probably chosen a different career path” had she been exposed to opportunities earlier.

“So, providing that environment where it’s safe and supportive for people to explore something new is really important to me,” she said.

McGregor heard about Ladies Learning Code while living in London, Ont. about five years ago. “We had a conversation with a few people who were interested in learning code, but didn’t really have anywhere to go,” she said. “Someone had heard of this going on in Toronto, so I reached out to them . . . we got that going in London and we’ve been going for three or four years now.”

Encouraging as it is to see women coming forward to acquire coding skills, McGregor said it can be intimidating “when girls aren’t exposed to technology until later in life . . . and it’s viewed as more of a masculine field.”

Speaking of her own experience, she said, “I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt unwelcome, but I’ve definitely felt like a minority. It’s not really a matter of people not being open to a female presence; it’s more a matter that there isn’t a lot of female presence, and I think people are just used to it being that way.”

That’s where initiatives like this week’s summer camp come in.

The atmosphere is lively as girls cluster around laptops, building sites complete with About Us pages, photographic backgrounds and calls to action.

“The biggest surprise to me in getting involved with the younger girls is how quickly they catch on,” McGregor said. “I run workshops for adults, and we move through the material very slowly. In here, we’re jumping from topic to topic so quickly because they just pick it up like that.”

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Ava Fisher (standing, right) looks on as her teammates at this week’s Girls Learning Code summer work on their website. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Among the girls I met was Ava Fisher, 11.

“I like a lot of computer coding and stuff to do with technology, and I’ve gone to other previous camps with computer coding and I’ve had a lot of fun at them,” Ava told me.

As for this particular camp, “I think it’s a really great camp and you’re learning a whole lot within the five days,” she said.

At Ava’s school, boys and girls have equal access to explore tech, but she said she wishes more of her female classmates would show an interest in it. “They should be focusing on trying new experiences, such as learning code or stuff like that,” she said.

For Elli Schroeder, also 11, this week’s camp was her first exposure to coding.

“This is my first experience. I’ve never actually done this before,” Elli said. “I didn’t know about it; my mom signed me up. I said, ‘That sounds fun.’”

Despite her lack of experience with CSS and HTML, she appeared to be settling right into her project: building a website to raise awareness of the plight of elephants and help stave off their extinction.

Building a site with a social purpose fits in with what Elli told me about how she has seen gender and tech play out at her school.

“For some of the math things that we did [at school] on the computer, more of the boys liked it,” she said. “But with things that would actually have effects . . . more of the girls liked that stuff.”

Whether or not the girls at the camp choose to pursue careers in tech is an open question, but perhaps that’s beside the point. Maybe it’s just as important that they – and all girls – feel it’s a choice they’re as free to make as boys are.

In Elli’s case, stereotypes don’t appear likely to hold her back, regardless of where she winds up.

When I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up, she said, “I’m going to be a firefighter.”

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector