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Code knows no gender. Photo: Martin Adolfsson
Code knows no gender. Photo: Martin Adolfsson

Women who code

Computer code may be binary, but until recently most code was written by just one half of the population. Now a new wave of women is learning to code, and the world is better for it.

There are dozens of organizations that work to get girls into programming. Here are some of them:

Women Who Code

More than 30,000 members; present in 18 countries.

womenwhocode.com

Girls Who Code

A New York-based initiative that helps girls by organizing clubs and immersion programs all over the US.

girlswhocode.com

Geek Girl Meetup

Founded in Sweden in 2008, the network organizes events that inspire girls to get into tech. Geek Girls are active in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Mexico, and the UK.

geekgirlmeetup.com

Girls in Tech

Founded in 2007, Girls in Tech is headquartered in San Francisco but has multiple chapters around the world, including France, Italy, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.

girlsintech.org

Adda Birnir lost her New York City media job in the downsizing wave of 2008. As the ax was swung through the office, she looked around the room to see who was let go and who got to stay on.
“I realized they were keeping all the tech people,” she says. “I spent a day in the park drinking beer and then signed up for a coding class.”
Even as recently as 2008, signing up for a coding class was an unusual choice. Today, Birnir is one of America’s brightest-shining female IT entrepreneurs, with a company of her own. Its purpose? To help women get into tech.

Not a new thing

Coding, like technology in general, is one of those things that seem to interest men more than women. Why are women all over the world now suddenly starting to code?
For starters, it’s not sudden. The mother of all computer programmers, for instance, is considered to be Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. The movie The Imitation Game showed us the crucial role Joan Clarke played in cracking the Nazi Enigma code. Neil Armstrong’s moon landing? Programmed by Margaret Hamilton. COBOL? Partly designed by Grace Hopper, a US Navy rear admiral who once told a reporter that programming was “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it... Women are naturals at computer programming.”
In fact, in the early days of computers, the software field was wide open to women, since men were primarily interested in building the circuitry.

Boy’s take charge

Then something strange happened. After the personal computer revolution got under way in the mid-1980s, the percentage of female computer programmers plummeted from 40 percent to 17 percent, where it is today. What happened?
Some blame the parents. If there was a computer in the house (and in the 1980s there was usually one, at most) it was often assumed that the son would have it, not the daughter. And after a few years of intense exposure, boys had reached 10,000 hours of training and had a significant head start. Thanks to the having spent so much more time programming on average, they actually were better at it than girls.
Meanwhile in the workplace, the demand for computer-literate employees went up everywhere, and with the advantage the boys had, they grabbed the jobs. Even today, Apple, Twitter, Google, Facebook, and the rest are all happy if they can present two women for every 10 programmers on staff.

Adda Birnir turned a setback to her advantage, thanks to coding. Photo: Martin Adolfsson

The ability to interact socially gives an edge

Marianne Lucy-Head, coordinator of business analysis services at City of Gold Coast, Australia, was in her early teens in the late 1960s when she decided she wanted to work in the computer industry.
“Forty years ago, nearly all developers and coders were men, but the data entry pool was mostly female,” she says. “That continues to be the trend in Australia – women stay in the peripheral roles and not so much in geeky coding roles.”
As the woman, she was often deemed the group’s people person and was asked to go out and talk to the clients, bridging the gap between technical and business.
Even though Lucy-Head never really enjoyed being the “people person,” the ability to interact socially may be exactly what gives female coders the edge in any kind of enterprise.
“Today, we’re seeing that every industry is becoming a technology industry,” says Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code, a Silicon Valley nonprofit organization with more than 12,000 members in 18 countries.
“Traditional sectors like shipping, banking, and health care – all of these are now technology industries,” she says. “And the majority of software engineering roles require problem solving and communication in addition to coding, which makes it a very dynamic position.”
That message is reaching women everywhere. Just like Adda Birnir, tens of thousands of women who want to survive their company’s next downsizing are future-proofing their careers by learning how to code.

Paulina Modlitba Söderlund. Photo: Anna GerdenThat’s good for society as a whole, says Paulina Modlitba Söderlund, a Swedish media tech engineer and a MIT Media Lab graduate.
“We need lots of different types of people,” she says. “If everybody in a project has the same background, things get discussed and questioned less. With more diversity, things are turned over repeatedly and looked at from different angles, which produces better results.
“But if you belong to the group in power, you have no reason to question something you think is working fine. Only people with an outside perspective do this. And in tech, women always have the outside perspective, because we are never the norm.”
Of course, some would argue that a company like Apple has done spectacularly well for itself with a staff that is only 20 percent female. But that success could have been even bigger with more women, says Britt Griffith, co-founder of She’s Coding, a US project on a mission to close the gender gap in computer science.

“From a high-level business perspective, field experiments have shown that teams closer to a 50-50 gender split perform better than predominantly male teams,” she says. “It’s worth noting that Apple has demonstrated awareness and understanding of the gender gap, and the need to close it.”
Besides, the current worldwide engineer shortage means that tech companies will have to hire women whether they like it or not, because there simply aren’t enough engineers out there – male or female.
The EU Commission, for example, estimates that Europe will have a shortage of one million programmers as soon as 2020, and US calculations come to the same conclusion for their side of the Atlantic. In this scenario, leaving half the population dramatically underrepresented is a bad strategy.

A new generation of coders

A growing number of parents are teaching their children – boys and girls this time – to code because it’s both useful and good, clean fun. Camilla Askebäck Diaz, for example, works in Stockholm as a schoolteacher and certified Apple Education Trainer, but she is also a self-confessed “proud geek mother of three daughters.”
“I have always been interested in digital technology and curious about using it to create more magic and sense of discovery in the classroom,” she says. “Letting students work with programming doesn’t mean they all have to become programmers. The point is to introduce them to knowledge about our society, which to a large part is built by code.”
Askebäck Diaz sees her own daughters developing skills like cooperation, creativity, logical reasoning, problem solving, and analytical skills.
“My 4-year-old creates simple but abstract missions in BeeBots when she programs a bee to move in a predetermined pattern,” she says. “My 9- and 7-year-olds and I discuss angles, distances, and directions when they program Elsa from Frozen to move through a coordinate system, or make a block-programmed game in ‘Hopscotch.’ ”

Special events like the Swedish Kodcentrum's kid hackthon attract boys and girls to the world of progamming. Photo: Maria Uhr

Jonas Boegård, a software engineer at Ericsson in Kista outside of Stockholm, takes the same approach with his 11-year-old daughter, Tuva. They have made coding Tuva’s extracurricular activity through Kod­centrum, a nonprofit with the goal of teaching the craft to 100,000 children of both genders by the year 2020.
“I tried to get her interested myself, but couldn’t really get through,” he says. “Boys often learn how to code by doing, on their own, but girls need a little nudge, and the volunteers here at Kodcentrum have been perfect. Instead of a square dad trying to teach programming, the young boys and girls can inspire the kids.”
One girl who was nudged in this way 20 years ago is Sanna Tupala, today a technical project leader at CGI in Stockholm. In her current position she doesn’t code, but she enjoys the opportunity to talk code and tech solutions.
“Computers have been a big part of my life during the last 20 years, and without code my interest would not have run so deep,” she says. “I remember how writing code was like a world of its own, a magical language that built things that looked or worked in a certain way. It was fun.”

Companies need to create an attractive workplace

Companies that want to compete for talents like Sanna and Tuva – and they should – need to do better in creating workplaces that will appeal to women. With the millennials accustomed to instant delivery of everything, the preferred solution of tomorrow’s female techies might just be to bypass the traditional tech environment altogether and do what Adda Birnir did – set up their own shop.

‘Apple has done spectacularly well for itself with a staff that is only 20 percent female but that success could have been even bigger with more women’

She is now the founder and CEO of Skillcrush, an online learning community devoted to demystifying technology and teaching digital skills to both women and men.
“I am not sure if being an entrepreneur is a faster way for women to achieve equality,” she says. “But I do think that in many instances it can be easier to create a company from scratch with a more gender-neutral or gender-friendly culture than to try to dismantle a discriminatory culture.”
More importantly, the women she works with at Skillcrush have opened her eyes to all the ways digital skills are used to empower women – whether their ultimate goal is to make more money or to have a more flexible job.
“Following the more traditional track of getting a computer science degree and going to work for Google is not normally the most optimal choice,” she says. “I think it’s really important for women to know that their economic advancement is not ­predicated on what Google decides to do or not to do.”

 

By Henrik Harr

 

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