The U.S. nation-wide, women’s coding event hosted by the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) is now moving to the Final Challenge in Chicago. This competition is the first of its kind in the U.S.

In its 10th year, the ITA Tech Challenge is a programming, coding skills and teamwork competition for current female-identifying university students in the U.S. The 162 students participated in a qualifying challenge which selected a top 40 to be invited to be flown to Chicago to compete in the Final Challenge.

In the final challenge – which will take place on October 17-18 – students will be divided into teams, collaborate with on-site mentors, and be tasked to solve a social impact problem (the topic is secret until the day of the event) with their coding skills. The winning team will be awarded $10,000.

The 162 women who applied came from a variety of majors: Computational and Applied Mathematics, Computer Information Technology, Computer Science, Statistics, and Electrical and Computer Engineering. Although women from 46 universities applied, the 40 finalists represent just 18 schools, including Dartmouth, Northwestern, Purdue, Boston University, University of Southern California and more.

Julia Kanouse, CEO of the ITA, discusses the competition further with Digital Journal.

Digital Journal: Why is coding becoming so popular?

Julia Kanouse: Having coding skills has proven to lead to lucrative careers. The tech industry has also been glamorized by Hollywood and “tech stars” like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have emerged, fueling interest. Coding is also a tie to the technology that this generation has grown up using. Just as previous generations have taken apart mechanical toys or cars to see how they work, young people are learning to code to understand what makes their favorite app work.

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DJ: What are the main obstacles for a lower take-up?

Kanouse: Research is just starting to explore why fewer girls enter computer science or engineering programs than young men but we see a big drop-off in interest in middle school. Before the age of 10 almost 80% of girls indicate an interest in a STEM career. By the time they are 14, that drops to less than 10%. There are a host of factors that could be contributing to this from the way the subject is taught to a lack of role models to a lack of resources and tools targeted to girls.

DJ: What can businesses and universities do to encourage more female coders?

Kanouse: Companies can create an inclusive environment where women feel empowered, heard and safe. By providing mentors and internal sponsors to young female engineers, they will have greater opportunities to grow, be challenged and progress their careers. Universities can create partnerships with progressive organizations that are working to create inclusive cultures to help make female students aware of the opportunities that exist. They can also focus on recruiting and employing more female professors in computer science courses to help overcome the stigma of being “male-dominated” while simultaneously giving female students someone to look up to.

DJ: What are the aims of the #CodeLikeAWoman ITA Tech Challenge?

Kanouse: It’s more than just a competition, it’s about connections. A big part of our initiative is to provide a platform where future young women in tech can come together to connect, inspire one another, and strengthen their extraordinary talents. It was created to help attract and retain young, female talent within the Chicago tech community.

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DJ: What will the October 17-18 event involve?

Kanouse: The top 40 scorers from the virtual, qualifying challenge will come to Chicago on Thursday, October 17th, with all expenses paid for by the Illinois Technology Association (ITA). We kick off the event with a Welcome Reception from 6-8pm at Catapult, a woman-led coworking space in Chicago.

The students will have a chance to meet and mingle with the sponsoring companies and the other top scorers from 15 universities across the country. At the end of the evening, ITA will assign the teams to start working on a social impact challenge. On Friday, October 18th, the students will start their day with breakfast and a panel discussion, hearing from women working in Chicago tech companies today. After breakfast, each team will work together to solve for the social issue, using technology.

Acting as mentors and rotating through all the teams, sponsoring companies will send reps to work with the students. The students will be judged on soft skills such as teamwork, communication and creativity. At the end of the day, the teams will present their results to a panel of judges from the community. The winning team will receive $10,000 in cash. The sponsoring companies will also receive the resumes of every participant and are encouraged to reach out for internships and full-time opportunities.

DJ: What are the future plans for the ITA Tech Challenge?

Kanouse: While the Tech Challenge is a 10-year-old program, this is the first year we have focused on female-identifying students. The ITA team will debrief with sponsors and students alike to collect feedback and determine the direction of the program in 2020.

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