The road to gender balance in tech is paved with code

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

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, Google and 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.

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