Training the future generation of female coders

Teen girls study at a cyber-tech summer camp in Beersheba.

Teen girls study at a cyber-tech summer camp in Beersheba  (photo credit: DUDU GREENSHPHAN)
Teen girls study at a cyber-tech summer camp in Beersheba
(photo credit: DUDU GREENSHPHAN)
Shahar Nitzani, Shelly Nahshonov and Maskit Yablovich are used to skeptical looks when they tell people about their interest in computers and cyber technology.
The three teenagers are the only girls in their computer classes, an all too common situation in high schools, the IDF cyber force and hi-tech companies, where women are almost always in the minority.
Last week, the girls met for the first time at the national cyber education initiative Magshimim summer camp, which brought together some 150 teenage girls in Beersheba.
The educational camp, sponsored by the Rashi Foundation in partnership with global aerospace company Lockheed Martin, prepares participants for entering the selective three-year cyber program that trains youth as cyber experts for IDF Intelligence and the hi-tech industry.
“When I said that I plan to study computers in high school, it raised many eyebrows among my friends and family,” Nitzani said on Thursday. “Later on, they got used to the idea, and nobody was surprised when I told them about [participating in] the cyber camp.”
Maskit added: “Studying in an all-boys class isn’t easy.
There’s a lot of competition, and as a girl you have to prove you’re good. At the cyber camp, it’s great to feel that being a girl was not an issue.”
The girls know they will continue to belong to the minority if they are selected for the full Magshimim program, where boys still make up 80 percent of the student body. “But,” Nahshonov said, “where is it written that cyber is only for boys? We are as good as they are, if not better.”
The week-long summer camp has given the girls a peek into the world of cyber tech – from coding, encrypting and decrypting, to a chance to apply what they learned in technology-based challenges such as an escape room or treasure hunt.
Tali Ben Aroya, coordinator of gender equality in the cyber education center of the Rashi Foundation explained that, even today’s generation of teenage girls is steered from quite an early age toward certain fields of study and career paths.
“When a teenage girl shows an interest in a ‘masculine’ field, the response is usually incredulity or worse,” she said.
Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, chairman of the Rashi Foundation and former IDF chief of staff, noted that, in 2015, female soldiers comprised just 12 percent of the conscripts in the military’s cyber units.
“Women in Israel are under-presented in the fields of cyber, computer science and science, in general. There are not enough young women who choose to study these subjects in high school and academia, and a result their number in the hi-tech industry is far below their proportion in the population,” he said.
“One of the goals of Rashi’s Cyber Education Center is to change this situation and encourage young women to join cyber programs that will take them through army service in the cyber force and academic studies towards a career in hi-tech.”
The summer camps for girls, according to Joshua Shani, CEO of Lockheed Martin Israel added that it is “highly important in changing the common view that cyber is not for girls.”
“We support STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education programs in the US and in Israel and hope that through initiatives like the cyber camp we can get more young women to apply for and enroll in these programs in the future,” said Shani.