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The road to gender balance in tech is paved with code

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Women gather at the Github headquarters for Rails Girls San Francisco on June 30, 2012.

Girl coders. Lady coders. Women who code.

Whatever you want to call them, women getting together to learn programming and build their own tech communities have been getting a lot of love recently. And for a good reason.

Silicon Valley tech companies want to hire more women, and while there are plenty of issues with how those companies retain the women they hire, finding them in the first place is a big issue.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women made up only 14 percent of computer science graduates at major research universities in 2010. Yet there’s a huge need for programmers and IT professionals, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that those occupations will grow by 22 percent between 2010 and 2020, and a war going on among Silicon Valley startups for the best talent.

Rails Girls, Girls Who Code, and Ladies Learning Code are just a few of the organizations that are attempting to get women excited about and interested in technology. Here’s how they’re doing it:

Rails Girls

Henrietta Kekäläinen doesn’t want to spend much time bemoaning the lack of women in tech. She just wants to do something about it. To that end, she brought Rails Girls, a programming crash course for women, to the United States on Saturday.

“Let’s just do stuff and not talk about it forever,” she told the approximately 30 women and a few men gathered in San Francisco on Saturday for Rails Girls. They got together on Friday evening to meet each other and download the setups onto their computers. The participants then worked in small groups led by local volunteer coaches on Saturday to practice building web apps using Ruby on Rails.

Rails Girls is a nonprofit that aims to use open-source technology and local workshops to make programming more approachable for girls and women. Co-founded in 2010 by Linda Liukas and Karri Saarinen in Helsinki, the organization has grown to help women around the world host weekend workshops for beginning coders to take a stab at learning Ruby. Women who want to host a workshop in their city have to find a location, local Ruby coaches, and a few sponsors, which the organization will help them with. Kekäläinen said they’ll be hosting upcoming events in Portland and Washington, D.C., along with workshops in Brazil, Germany, Poland, Finland, Estonia, and Ireland.

“Girls run this world! But also women, ladies, even boys are allowed in,” the founders write on their website explaining the Rails Girls philosophy. “More than semantics we’re interested in a mindset. Both founders were born in the Spice Girls era, they don’t see the word girl as condescending or cutesy-cute.”

Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code has a strong advocate for women in tech with founder Reshma Saujani, the former Deputy Public Advocate of New York City who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2010 but noted the tech inequalities among schools in New York City and aimed to do something about it.

The movement focuses on girls ages 13 to 17, taking the approach that women have to become exposed to technology at an earlier age if they want to become proficient later in life. The program works to implement instruction in robotics, web design, and mobile development along with mentoring from high-profile female engineers and entrepreneurs for girls in New York City.

“Women are going to be left behind,” Saujani told The Wall Street Journal. “Technology has the potential to create income inequity and we need to do something about it.”

Girls Who Code has received backing from major internet companies, including Twitter, General Electric(s ge), Google(s goog) and eBay(s ebay). On Twitter’s blog, company engineer Sara Haider wrote about the company’s decision to support Girls Who Code: “Of course we have self-interest in this too: having more female engineers on staff leads to having an even better working environment at Twitter. But more importantly, we want to support engineering education and make it more accessible to young women.”

Ladies Learning Code

This movement based in Toronto began with a Tweet from Heather Payne in June of 2011, and soon Ladies Learning Code was born. Payne had attended a Python workshop in Los Angeles, and wanted to bring that spirit back to Toronto. Now, Ladies Learning Code hosts monthly workshops in the Toronto area.

Like the Rails Girls founders, Payne doesn’t want to exclude men from her workshops either, she told Torontoist in October: “What Ladies Learning Code is aiming towards is a more equal industry. We need to walk the talk and have an equal number of men and women to be consistent with what we’re looking for in the outside world.”

A Ladies Learning Code workshop participant wrote about her experiences feeling empowered to take on the tech challenges she faced at work:

Yes! Empowering! That’s what I was looking for. I hate the cliche of being a woman who is afraid of technology; I hate relying on someone else to speak for me. I love the Internet (I would marry the Internet if I could), so shouldn’t I learn to create as well as consume? I knew I had found the perfect WordPress class: feminism and computers, relevant to all my interests.

14 Responses to “The road to gender balance in tech is paved with code”

  1. Spokker

    I was talking to my girlfriend about her adventure in networking once. When she was in high school, she took a course in Cisco systems. She was one of three female students to do so that year.

    She said that the boys in the class generally avoided them and she had overhead them snickering and complaining behind their backs that they were only there because they were girls and that they didn’t know anything. In retrospect, she said, they were probably right.

    The only reason my girlfriend and her friends were in that Cisco class is because the school strongly encouraged them to sign up. They were targeted because they were three top students in the AP program, and no other girls wanted to participate despite outreach efforts. My girlfriend says she knew of the outreach efforts, but only signed up after an administrator approached her personally.

    After they signed up, the school crowed in the paper (both the HS paper and the local newspaper) that they were the first girls to sign up for the networking class and administrators took credit for increasing female participation in the fledgling computer program.

    In the networking class, my girlfriend did her work, got an A, and received the appropriate amount of credits, but admits she didn’t really care about networking and couldn’t talk about networking or advanced computing topics outside of whatever she needed to know for the exams. The boys in the class were there because they wanted to be and were probably resentful over the amount of attention she and her friends received, and they didn’t even want to be there.

    Today, my girlfriend is an attorney and her friends didn’t go into technology careers either, as far as she knows, but they both earned college degrees. It wasn’t that barriers were put up to stop women from becoming educated and getting ahead in the computing field, it’s that they chose not to go into computers, but go into something else in order to get ahead. It’s just one school, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such scenarios have played out across the nation.

    • Spokker

      I found an article about it from 1998.

      Pretty interesting to read this article knowing my girlfriend’s first-hand account of the program, haha.

      This is the actual program that was offered in California schools by Cisco. It’s called Cisco Networking Academy.

      Even after over a decade, per 2008 statistics, female participation in this program is only 15%.

      From the first link: “In the meantime, Galindo and Hoyt confessed to not knowing the definitive cause of the gender gap. Neither is an expert in child psychology, but both expressed concern and curiosity.

      “I wonder why,” Hoyt said. “We’re not doing anything to discourage them.””

      Because they don’t want to!

      • Michelle Greer

        Networking aside, if women don’t want to learn to code, then why was this Rails Girls class full complete with a wait list? Why is every Railsbridge class full? I have never seen a women’s programming class that *wasn’t* full.

        It is dangerous to generalize based on the experience of one person.

      • Spokker

        Ms. Greer, perhaps the Railsbridge classes will finally be the thing that increases female participation in computer science.

        However, women now earn more BA degrees than men, so no one is stopping them from getting educated. They are simply choosing to become educated in different things.

        No, it is not dangerous to generalize. It is a useful tool to examine a problem. Just because a gap exists does not mean there is discrimination.

  2. Michelle Glauser

    I was at Rails Girls (in fact, I’m in the background in the turquoise) and I just loved it. I was super impressed with the willingness to help that so many people showed to make the program possible. Every single similar program receives my full respect! I wish I could attend every one. Thank you for what you’re doing.

  3. Jocelyn Leavitt

    Check out at Hopscotch ( and Skillcrush ( as well–two NYC-based startups building resources that will appeal to girls and women and learning to code.

  4. Spokker

    According to the Department of Education, about 60% of degrees go to women and 40% to men, and this gap is expected to widen over the next decade. Women are getting educated, but are interested in different things than men.

    That there is a gap in favor of men in a few key industries is not indicative of a crisis. Nor does it reflect poorly on any industry. There are no barriers to women breaking into the tech industry except for the fact that woman are generally less interested in the field than men. The reason Google has more t-shirts in men’s sizes is because more men show up.

    “Silicon Valley tech companies want to hire more women”

    Why is this an inherently good thing? Shouldn’t the goal be to hire the best person for the job regardless of gender?

    • arjun moorthy

      Spokker – hiring more women is a good goal because women bring a different set of opinions and ideas than men do to problem solving and that diversity should create better solutions for customers. Half the world’s customers (at least in B2C) are women; makes sense to have women be involved in designing solutions for them.

      I don’t think this criteria should necessarily mean skip more qualified male applicants, or try to force a cultural shift in a team that is functioning well. So there’s a balance but clearly the stats show that we are grossly imbalanced today with respect to representing women in technology.

      • Spokker

        But if the imbalance is caused by the individual choices that consenting adults make, then you will more than likely be be forced to skip more qualified male applicants in order to achieve parity in the raw statistics.

        If efforts to get more women into male-dominated industries and activities fails or only marginally increases female participation, will the outreach stop? What I am asking for are performance metrics for both outreach and female participation. At maximum outreach, what level of participation is acceptable?

  5. cczona

    It’s a mission that’s developed a lot of momentum in recent years. Too bad you overlooked Railsbridge, which predates all of these and has graduated more than 1600 women in San Francisco and worldwide since 2009. RailsGirls, among many others, was directly inspired by it. I’ve had the privilege of teaching for RailsGirls, RailsBridge, Girl Develop It, and others. They’re all approaching similar goals, from distinct niches. The industry benefits when these groups proliferate.

  6. Vanessa Hurst

    So many great organizations! Girl Develop It ( also offers low-cost, judgment-free software development courses in New York, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Columbus, Philadelphia, Austin, Ottawa, Canada, and Sydney, Australia.

  7. Vanessa Hurst

    So many great organizations! Check out Girl Develop It ( for low-cost, judgment-free software development courses in New York, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Columbus, Philadelphia, Austin, Ottawa, Canada, and Sydney, Australia, too!