While there’s lots of talk about gender balance when it comes to careers in technical roles the discussion can often fall into inane discussions about “suitability” and “natural talents” – something a Google engineer made public much to his own detriment. But the numbers don’t lie. There are fewer women in technical roles. There are myriad reasons for this with one being that the intake processes for technical careers are often heavily slanted towards attracting male candidates. Code Like A Girl aims to change that, running events, workshops and internships specifically, but not exclusively, targeting women looking to move into a technical career or seeking to boost their tech skills. I spoke with Code Like a Girl co-founder Vanessa Doake.
I met with Doake as she took time out from her day job. One of the first thing that stood out was this is really a passion project. She, and co-founder Ally Watson, see this as important work and that it’s not about making money. Doake said many of the coding workshops they run charge just $20 per participant for a half-day which barely covers costs. The meet-ups they run every other month are free and the internships they are now offering cost very little.
Watson completed a computer science degree, where she was one of very few women in the course and landed a job in her native Scotland where she was one woman in a team of 40 guys working as a back-end .NET developer. When she moved to Australia she left her old networks behind so she started a Meet-Up group with an open invitation to women in technical roles looking to just chat and talk about projects over a drink.
That first meeting saw 100 women show up. From that, it was clear there was a desire for a forum where women working in technical jobs could get together and share what was going on for them.
Code Like A Girl officially launched a couple of years ago with events where there was a guest speaker.
“After about nine months there was a real desire from the women attending to something more skill based rather than general knowledge. So we started doing workshops,” said Doake.
Those workshops were focussed on four groups – early primary school students, late primary/early secondary students, senior secondary students, and adults. They covered introductions to HTML and CSS, Python, building a VR game and other topics. That expanded into providing assistance with finding new jobs, leading to establishment of an employment service, called Working Space.
“We ask organisations one question; what are you doing to address gender equality in the workplace. If we have a genuine response to that question, we’ll share the job”.
It’s not just about numbers, said Doake. Code Like A Girl is also interested in what companies are doing to make their work environments conducive to a gender-balanced workforce, where the company is aware of the biases they might have in their organisations.
While Doake works in a tech company, she is in a non-technical role. In order to get up to speed, she took a ten-week intensive course to get herself up to speed. But that model, said Doake, isn’t a great way for many people to learn. The teaching style and examples used didn’t fit her mode of learning.
“Not everyone learns best classroom-style. It was that experience that drove the creation of the internship,” said Doake.
For someone looking at a technical career, an internship is great way to combine knowledge with real-world training. Unlike boot-camps, degrees and intensive courses that require significant time and money. Many require people to leave or suspend their current jobs and outlay large amounts of money.
“We have a lot of women in our community who are interested in a career change and that’s just not feasible. An internship, where the participant is earning as they learn, provides an alternative”.
The Code Like A Girl internship program launched about a month ago and has had over 150 applications – seven of which came from men.
“It’s a really diverse spread, with applicants aged between 18 and 40. Rather than mandating that someone had a degree or had attended a bootcamp we had just two requirements – that you could legally work in Australia, and some base level of coding knowledge. That could be short-course, online, or self-taught. The other thing was attitude – you have to be passionate about technology”.
The application process for the internship includes an online form and a video interview where applicants answer four questions. That can lead to an interview and they are matched up to an origination. Companies that take interns are also vetted for their commitment to equality and equity with applicants and companies matched up. From there, the company interviews the potential intern and if it all lines up, the intern can get appointed. Doake noted that the companies engaged in the program still take potential interns through their own recruitment processes so the contact from Code Like A Girl is not a “golden ticket”.
The spread of companies Code Like A Girl has engaged with is broad and covers digital agencies, government departments, machine learning companies, retail and others.
“Every company is a tech company so the attraction to have talent is broad”.
One of the criticisms often levelled against programs like this is that if women were “good enough” they wouldn’t need “preferential treatment”.
“The only thing we have that is exclusively for girls are our workshops,” said Doake. “We had a guy at an expo ask ‘What about underprivileged boys – what’s out there for them?’. Our response is that we have a system where there has been inherent inequalities across the board in society – it’s not just a tech-specific issue. We’re just trying to have opportunities so everyone is starting from the same place”.
It’s not just about gender, added Doake. By keeping workshops free or very low-cost they allow wider access.
“We’re trying to break down the barriers,” said Doake.