How Coding Schools May Finally Buck the Trend of No Women in Tech (and Why We Need Them To)

Within the first few minutes of attending the metabridge conference in Kelowna, one big question formed in my mind: why is the ratio of men to women in attendance about 10 to one? Not only that, but of the 15 top startups pitching their companies, only one CEO was a woman (Catherine Graham of Toronto’s commonsku). 

Sure, the tech community has come a long way, but here we are in 2014 and it doesn’t seem like the ratio has improved all that much in 20 years. In fact, I recall working for IBM in the late 90s and the ratio of technology-centric jobs held by women compared to their male counterpart may have been greater then.

Why is this and what can we do about it? 

There were several female CEOs at metabridge, and their answers to this question varied greatly. One, Analea Krebs of Vanouver’s ethicalDeal, says that while we may not be able to change stats, what women do about it isn’t all that difficult.

“I used to work at a brokerage firm in Downtown Vancouver and my mentor at the time told me, ‘If you think being a woman is going to be an issue it’s going to be an issue and if you don’t think it will be an issue it won’t be an issue,” she says, adding that line of thinking has served her well. “I don’t feel like my gender is limiting. I would love to see more women here for sure, and i think there should be more programs in place to get more women in tech. But in my own pursuit of business, I refuse to see that as a limitation. I think that empowers me to ask that other people treat me like anyone else.”

As a guy, I’m not in a position to weigh in on whether Krebs’s attitude is easier said than done. Looking for more concrete answers, I figured Sandra Wear, CEO of Canadian Women In Technology, was probably a good go-to resource. While she doesn’t have the answer as to why men are outnumbering women in tech, she’s doing all she can to do something about it.

The big project currently on her plate is Be Like Ada, a bootcamp for teenage girls that teaches them how to code like a pro and develop their superpowers.

“I’m really passionate about bringing a strong innovation culture in Canada and in order to do that and we need big bold thinking and we need diversity. If you don’t have diversity you don’t have 100% of potential at the table. Diversity also comes in the flavour of gender, and as a female in tech I’m a little frustrated – and if anything – the stats show that it’s getting worse. If this is the case, we will not be able to compete globally,” Wear says.

Are we really going in the wrong direction? Wear has her theories as to why this dysfunctional stat might be accurate.

“Well, you know, there’s lots of different reasons for it. One, it doesn’t seem to be friendly for women, so if that’s the thinking then that just kind of perpetuates the problem,” she explains. “I also think we’re not aWear of our own biasses we bring to the table. We need to implement hiring practices or teaching practices that mitigate against those biases. Tech is now becoming really cool, being a tech company as a cool brand, but everyone that’s involved in that are guys. Coming up the funnel, education side, the girls are not told that that’s not something they’re supposed to do.”

The numbers problem for women in tech is obviously more complicated than any one person – or group of people – can repair, but proactive events like Be Like Ada are a big start. Besides, being mindful of the “why” of the problem, without spending too much focus or energy on it, is paramount to addressing the “how.”

“One of the things that I decided… I was less going to focus on why the problem exists than applying different solutions to see if we could fix it. I don’t think it’s going to take one person, one organization or one style, I think it’s going to take lots of different things, going back to the diversity angle,” Wear says. “My background is in the sciences, and that’s what lean methodology is: it’s scientific methodology, creative hypothesis and here’s what we test for.”

Wear, along with most of the women I spoke to, feels the environment is still not where it should be for girls growing up.

“My colleague and myself see what’s challenging for girls. It’s not a girl friendly environment,” she says. “They don’t see peers, they don’t see the role models, it’s not presented to be something that they can do. We are going to eliminate those and tackle those head on. That day they can look around the room and see a hundred girls just like them and they are going to see girls just like them. These girls are thinking ‘What am I going to do when I grow up.’ You have to look around and see people that look like you because that’s how you relate.”

Wear is structuring the Be Like Ada bootcamp to accentuate the positive aspects of being in Technology.

“The role models are going to come in and talk to them and we are going to make it a lot of fun,” she explains. “Nobody tells us that coding can be fun and that it’s a creative process. You can know a little about it and it’s not about being a full time coder. You can know a little about it and there is so much flexibility. There is drawing involved and we use legos. All those things debunk some of the stereotypes, and ultimately that they can see things that they can do. It’s just like writing and reading. Anybody can do it. It’s not just 1% of the population.”

 

A Google-made short film promoting female coders.

 

What does Wear hope girls take away with them when the bootcamp is over?

“There are a few things. Success for us comes in three flavours. One is, they’ll say, ‘This is what programming and coding is about; I can do all these different jobs and typically have a higher salary and have more flexibility and be much more hireable than other people.’ Success number two is that 10% of the girls are now thinking about some form of engineering (and I include Comp Sci in that) as a career track and they might study it in post secondary. Third success for us is that 20% want to continue engagement in some way.”

I circle back to some women’s perceptions that this is only a problem if you make it a problem. Could this be an oversimplification of things?

“I think it’s a problem,” Wear suggests. “Another of my values is to always be better. If you want to achieve your full potential, how can you do it if only 50% of your potential is off the table to you? There is no way. You can’t reflect on who you are trying to solve a problem for. What you can’t focus on is being that one in 10.”

In speaking with Wear, it’s apparent that gender diversity may just equate to better overall performance and output for companies and the tech economy.

“Yes,” she answers; “statistics show if you have diverse teams your company performs better. Not because women perform better it’s because diverse teams build the best solutions. To build the best solutions you need the best perspective of both genders which is reflective of the products you are selling to a wide variety of consumer base.”

It’s clear we have a lot of work to do. I think as men working in technology we’d be fooling ourselves to think that it isn’t more difficult for a woman to break in to the field and become established. Those that have “made it” have probably faced an entirely different set of road blocks that their male counterparts’ career wheels have never had to circumvent.

Events like Be Like Ada represent a great foundation for confronting this gender diversity problem at the age where it counts: young women – teenagers who are just starting to think about what field they want to enter into. Here’s hoping that when the teens of today enter into the workforce our tech world will be more diverse.

Be Like Ada takes place in Vancouver on July 19 from 8:30am to 5pm at the Rocky Mountaineer Station. The cost is $45.