HOWTO: Create an award for girls in tech

With yet another fail at an open source conference, I wanted to spend a few minutes to tell you about something that took me 20 minutes and will, I think, have a real impact on the life of one girl.

This week I started an award at my former high school for a senior female student that has demonstrated creative use of technology. She doesn't need to have the best marks, she doesn't need to have sustained performance. She just needs to have shown a sliver of inspiration and interest in technology to be rewarded and encouraged. In the game of Alice's Restaurant and World Domination, you have to start by doing one thing different. Here's the FAQ on why I did it and how you can start your own award too.

Note: "female" is intended to be inclusive of anyone who self-identifies as a girl or young woman. Unfortunately awards generally use the sex term, not the gender term. This HOWTO reflects that terminology.

2015 Update: the award has been running since the original blog post and was renamed to the "Ada Lovelace Award" in 2013.

Why a high school award?
Every November at West Hill Secodary School there's an award ceremony. Kids who win awards get to stand up in front of their entire school and be recognized for something they've accomplished. The whole school claps. The award winner then gets a line on their resume that says they've won an award. It doesn't matter how much money the award is, you still get to say that you're an award winning student and that can be the difference between getting accepted into the program you want, and just being another faceless application.

Creative use of tech? Huh? What's up with that?
This isn't an award for being a nerd or being a jock. It's an award for two words that hardly ever go together in high school: creativity and technology. That means an entire school full of students are going to be exposed to the idea of "creative" and "technology" going together. It comes with a small sum of money, which means some of the students will work towards achieving this award.

Why a senior student?
This is an award that students can work towards over the course of their four years in high school. Student projects in the junior grades (ought to be about) mastering specific techniques and tools, by their senior years students should have the skills they need to start expressing themselves with the tools they've learned. Of course there are some truly exceptional young technologists (Drupal has a 13 year old core developer who's already been around for two or three years), but these geniuses are probably winning other awards too.

Why a female student?
Because I want to encourage girls to use technology in ways that interest them.

I am still working with West Hill to roll out the award, but it was remarkably easy to get the process started. Here's how you too can start an award to encourage girls to stay engaged with technology.

  1. Phone up your alma mater (your old high school).
  2. Ask to speak with the guidance department. These folks know everything. Tell them you're an alumni and that you want to sponsor an award. You will be redirected to the right department from here.
  3. When you are redirected to the right department, start over. Explain that you want to sponsor an award.
  4. Choose your own criteria, but don't be too specific. If you are too specific will be too difficult to match your award to a student (and they may not be able to actually give the award out). The school should work with you to come up with the exact language for the award criteria and the name of the award. Have some ideas before you phone.
  5. Make the amount of the award up to the value of one billable hour of your time. The award is not about the amount of money, it's about (1) promoting technology (2) giving a student a line on their resume. It's also about being sustainable. You want to make sure you can afford to give this award every year. In some cases you may be asked to set up a fund for an ongoing award. If you have the funds, go ahead and do that. If not, ask if you can sponsor a one-time award. In my case they didn't ask for anything more than this year's award. They will send me a form letter next year to remind me to send another cheque.
  6. Write a cheque to the appropriate school division. (Mine is made out to the school board.) You should be issued a tax receipt for your donation. Ask them about this if they don't mention it.

And that's it! One billable hour of your money (and a stamp and envelope for the cheque). 20 minutes of your time. And you have made a female student an award winning technologist. Now get out there and do it!

PS Thanks to my mum for the idea. Years ago she organized three literary awards (one for each local high school) in honour of three amazing women writers in the Owen Sound area.

Absolutely... brilliant. -jef

Absolutely... brilliant.


This is a fantastic idea. :)

This is a fantastic idea. :)

Excellent idea. It's a great

Excellent idea. It's a great way to promote women in technology.

To advertise such a contest,

To advertise such a contest, prize or scholarship hopefully will put in the minds of these young girls the idea to at least try to experiment with creativity and technology with the immediate goal being the 'prize'. This act may lead to a buzz whereby there is a sense of competition that leads to more participants. But at the same time, will it lead to a self-selection of those who would have already chosen to peruse such fields? And if so, how to make it possible to attract those who would not have thought to enter this contest otherwise and thus open up this career choice to more young girls. I think the idea and goal is worth it either way. Maybe devise a series of workshops whereby young girls can be exposed to some examples of the application of creativity in technology use? OLPC, afrigadget, Makersfaire, etc.

Now that I'm (very recently!)

Now that I'm (very recently!) no longer a starving intern (which I was this summer when we first met in person), I can afford to pay things forward a bit... and this seems like an incredibly good way of doing so. I'm going to look into doing this. I'm not sure where yet, or how much I can afford (after doing a little math, an hour of my billable time is not a huge amount of money; it might have to be 2 or 3). My high school? My middle school? (I love my college, but by the time kids get there they already want to do creative things with technology... so I'll continue to look for other ways to help out Olin).

Kevin's question about whether it will lead to self-selection is a good one, though. I'll have to think about that; it's neurodiversity I'd like to foster, not just chromosomal diversity. Maybe a "you must use something you've never used before and document your process of learning it" scholarship? What is it, exactly, that I want to reward and promote (and how to make sure that the reward helps rather than hinders intrinsic motivation?)


Thank you for starting me thinking about this - and to your mum as well.

Mel: great to hear your

Mel: great to hear your thoughts on this. Of course your award should be for characteristics and attributes that are important to you!

As for the amount: the school will generally accept not less than $20-30 for the award. My award will be $50 Canadian. My billable rate is higher. My suggestion is to give "up to" the value of one billable hour. What you are paid may be slightly less than what your firm charges a client for your time, but my guess is that most people in IT in North America are earning at least $20/hour.

I can't say this enough: this award should not be about the dollar value of the award. This should be about bestowing an award onto someone who demonstrates characteristics and attributes that you want to foster. Decades (gulp) after winning awards in grade school I can still tell you I am an award winning poet, communicator and artist and that I've received merit badges for even more things. (Maybe you want to sponsor a year of merit badges for all qualified students? Your award is yours! You can do whatever delights and excites your imagination.) I haven't got a clue how much those awards were worth as a dollar value, but I can tell you how it has benefited my confidence in my abilities.

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