Melissa Sariffodeen: Blazing a digital literacy trail for girls and women

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Melissa Sariffodeen

The annals of history are filled with the accomplishments of remarkable people: discoverers of scientific phenomena and innovators of new technologies. But for the most part, history only celebrates the achievements of men. Granted, our high school textbooks teach us about Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette, but what about women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? Their absence is proof of centuries of marginalization and gender discrimination. It shouldn’t be surprising then to learn that 52 percent of Canadians cannot name a single woman in one of the four STEM fields. 

Poster of Melissa Sariffodeen for Ingenium’s Women in STEM initiative

Melissa Sariffodeen’s Women in STEM Poster

Ingenium is on a mission to balance this statistic. Their Women in STEM initiative recognizes the accomplishments of women — past and present — who have shaped our modern world in some way, despite the barriers placed before them. One such trailblazer is Melissa Sariffodeen, a Canadian computer scientist who teaches digital literacy to girls and women. 

Sariffodeen’s fascination with technology began at the age of 11 when she taught herself how to code. Similar to other girls growing up, however, she was never encouraged to pursue her passion past high school. This case is not unique, but rather is reflected in the fact that 39 percent of STEM graduates in Canada are women, and only 25 percent stay in their field after school.  

“It wasn’t until after some time in the workforce that I realized I needed and wanted to develop those skills, and that there still weren’t opportunities for women (or beginners) to learn coding.”    

~Melissa Sariffodeen

Melissa Sariffodeen teaching a classroom of students

Canada Leaning Code 

As an advocate for the advancement of women in tech industries, Sariffodeen decided to dedicate her career to sharing her passion with others. In 2011, she co-founded Ladies Learning Code, later rebranded Canada Learning Code (CLC), a non-profit organization that promotes digital literacy across Canada for which she also serves as CEO. While it originated as a series of workshops for women already working in the field, CLC quickly expanded beyond that — garnering interest from other women and children hungry for technological knowledge.  

Through various workshops and courses, CLC teaches coding and other technical skills, but also how to collaborate and work well in teams. Each course is designed to show women and girls that technology is an opportunity to build confidence and feel empowered. Sariffodeen’s ultimate goal is to help close the gender gap in STEM fields. She maintains that it is important for women to participate in the shaping of our ever-increasing digital world — to be builders, not just consumers. 

“Diversity in STEM is important for so many reasons. Technology is such an integral part of our lives and if it’s not built by those who use it, we’re missing out on the opportunity to create better technology.”

~Melissa Sariffodeen

Melissa Sariffodeen overseeing the work of two young girls

Melissa Sariffodeen overseeing the work of two young participants.  

Since its humble beginnings, CLC has taught over 100,000 individuals, with a goal of reaching 10 million participants by 2027. With state-of-the-art mobile coding units, it also strives to reach people living far from urban centres, including remote Indigenous communities. 

In addition to receiving $8 million in funding from the Canadian government, Sariffodeen herself received the 2017 Social Change Award at the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, an accolade she shares with her entire team.

Sariffodeen has a key piece of advice for young girls interested in pursuing a career in science.

“Take STEM courses — especially computer science! Coming to know yourself as a builder of technology is really powerful and can help you bring ideas to life, solve problems, express your creativity, and change the world.” 

~Melissa Sariffodeen

And now you’re familiar with a woman in STEM. But why stop here? Melissa Sariffodeen is just one of dozens of profiles available on Ingenium’s Women in STEM website. There you’ll discover marine biologists, Antarctic explorers, and astronomers searching the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life. It’s time for their stories to be shared. 

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Nathaniel Neil Whelan

Nathaniel Whelan has an M.A. from Carleton University. He is currently enrolled in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College and is completing his field placement at Ingenium as a content writer. An up-and-coming author, he lives in Ottawa with his partner and pet cat Susie-Bear.