An Interview with Isabel Sieh

As part of our celebration of International Youth Day, we interviewed Isabel Sieh, founder and Executive Director of Girls Will Code. Isabel started coding when she was only 11 years old! Read our interview to learn more about Girls Will Code, their advocacy, and Isabel's advice for girls who are interested in STEM.

TFFs: Hi, Isabel! Thank you for giving us an opportunity to feature your amazing STEM community! As part of celebrating International Youth Day this August, we really want to feature you and Girls Will Code because we've seen you promote a #GirlsCan attitude in your events and on social media. Like you, we believe that girls have great things to contribute to predominantly male fields such as STEM and that girls can excel in them too!

We also think that your advocacy to help educate girls in computer science is perfect for this year's International Youth Day theme, which is Transforming Education.

So, let’s get to it! Introduce yourself to our readers. What’s your STEM expertise and what are your non-STEM interests, if any?

Isabel: Hi! I’m Isabel Sieh, the 16-year-old founder and Executive Director of Girls Will Code, and co-founder of The Coding School. I am always learning as much as I can. I have dabbled in many fields in Computer Science, such as Web Development and Android Development, but I am currently very interested in Machine Learning. I believe that computer science is very interdisciplinary and is present in fields from business to medicine to sports. Most importantly, I think that coding, especially AI (Artificial Intelligence), can be used for social good to help others. Speaking of, I also enjoy sharing my interest in coding with others through Girls Will Code and by taking part of the coding community here in the Philippines. I love seeing how we as humans interact with the world, and moreover, how we can create a lasting positive impact on others and the environment. I also enjoy spending time with friends and family, reading, and playing tennis.

TFFs: That's really interesting to hear! At 16, we weren't doing anything similar to what you're doing right now. Anyway, what inspired you to start Girls Will Code?

Isabel: When you find a hobby, one of the things you do is you find a club. There is an art club, music club, etcetera, but there were no coding clubs. After some research, I found that coding for girls is uncommon and most coding clubs for girls are based in the US and are for a much older audience.

I also learned that worldwide, women occupy only 28.8% of the STEM industry, and the growth has stayed the same. Additionally, in schools, girls in Europe form an interest in STEM at around 11 years old, but they right away lose interest at around age 15. Lastly, in universities, only 20% of graduates in engineering are women; however, around 40% of these women end up quitting or never having engineering jobs.

In an effort not only based off a personal desire but also for the betterment of society, I searched for a community of girls my age encouraging each other to code. Since I could not find a solution to my problem, I made one by making a club. That's how Girls Will Code started.

TFFs: What are some of the notable events and achievements that your community has done?

Isabel: Since Girls Will Code was established, we’ve been holding plenty of outreach events, our most recent one was with Gat. Andres Bonifacio Elementary School where we taught girls in Grade 5. We’ve also worked with Google Philippines and Accenture Philippines for workshops and seminars, and our offline coding kits are used by our partner, The Coding School, for their Pre-computer Coding classes. Just last year, we started an annual event named, “Girl Forward”. It’s an event celebrating the UN International Day of the Girl that aims to inspire and encourage girls by having all-female guest speakers, all with positions related to STEM, and hands-on activities like programming with Scratch or an Arduino board.

We’ve been invited to speak at events like the PyCon APAC, Rappler Social Good Summit, GoNegosyo Youth Entrepreneurship Summit, TEDxBritishSchoolManila, and the Filipino Youth Volunteer Convention. We were also featured in media outlets such as Rappler, Candy Magazine, and ABS-CBN News. We have a playlist called “Featuring Girls Will Code” in our YouTube channel if you want to see our talks.

TFFs: Very impressive! Why do you think it's important to give girls equal opportunity to delve into predominantly male fields such as STEM?

Isabel: STEM can be used to find sustainable solutions to global problems like unequal income, global health epidemics, and climate change. The more women in STEM, the more solutions for issues affecting women. Moreover, studies show that companies with more female executives are more successful than companies with fewer females. (Jessica Canning. Et al. 3).

Currently, girls are faced with a myriad of stereotypes and challenges entering predominantly male fields. Morally speaking, inequality, especially in such a large aspect of the world is simply unjust.

Quote from Isabel Sieh

TFFs: In your opinion, what challenges do girls face when pursuing STEM that boys don’t necessarily have to deal with?

Isabel: Girls might feel uncomfortable pursuing STEM studies due to not having as many female classmates and teachers as males. There are also not that many known women in these fields to look up to, so they might feel uninspired. My suggestion would be to try not to focus on these challenges. When people look down at you because you’re a girl, don’t take it to heart. Instead, use it to fuel you to prove to yourself and to other people that women can take on anything as long as they put their minds to it.

TFFs: Are there any women in STEM whom you look up to or want to be like when you’re older? Why do you admire them?

Isabel:There are a couple of people I look up to that are in STEM. Mostly because of their work in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, but also because of their perspective in life.

  • Fei Fei Li, a Stanford University professor, who encourages girls and minorities to go into STEM.

  • Katie Bouman, a computer scientist who led the team that created the CHIRP algorithm that made it possible to photograph black holes. Another reason to look up to her was even though the world kept on crediting the work to just her, she acknowledged and defended the team effort that went into the development of CHIRP.

  • The women at Wave Computing. They made my internship with them highly enjoyable and nurturing.

  • Youtubers Mayuko Inoue, Anna Fang, and Katie Go, because of their goal to help and inspire others through their videos, specifically in computer science.

TFFs: For girls pursuing their dreams or starting initiatives, how important is it to have a solid support system in the parents or guardians? How did your parents encourage you when you started Girls Will Code?

Isabel: I consider myself lucky because my parents were always there to help me with whatever initiative I take on. They always look at things with an open mind and take an interest in what I or my sisters do even if they know nothing about the topic. They never pressure us even if our interests change. While I was starting Girls Will Code, my mom and sisters would accompany me and assist with outreach events; and the adult jobs like scheduling interviews, setting up the licenses, coordinating with schools, etcetera were handled by my mom.

TFFs: What’s your advice for fellow girls who are interested in STEM?

Isabel: Nurturing your interests is an important part of being great at something. With the rise of available resources like YouTube tutorials, podcasts, ebooks, and even after-school or summer classes, there’s really nothing holding you back except self-doubt. So start small but dream big. Write your very first “Hello World!” program and take it from there. One great thing about coding is that you don’t need fancy equipment to get started. You can even learn and practice while on your phone!

The STEM field, even computer science alone, can be a big scary world of information. It doesn't hurt to find someone, a mentor, who’s already well-versed in this field so they can help you with all the ins and outs. We also suggest to find a community you can join… like Girls Will Code!

TFFs: Well said, Isabel. We truly believe that with you as an example, more girls will be inspired to pursue their interests, whether that be in STEM or in other fields.

Once again, we want to thank you for the chance to speak to you about you and your journey as a young coder. We are truly amazed by how your community empowers girls. Keep up the good work and more power to you!

Final note from Isabel: To learn more about Girls Will Code and help us #debugthegap, visit our website. Connect with us through our Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channel. We also have a Facebook group dedicated to connecting girls with others who are interested in STEM. It’s open to all ages, so please come and join!

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