Closing the Gender Gap: A Peek Inside Programs to Train Female Developers

Measuring success at Girls Who Code and Hacker School.
girls who code Closing the Gender Gap: A Peek Inside Programs to Train Female Developers

The 20 Girls Who Code participants working out of AppNexus’s Flatiron office (Photo: girlswhocode.tumblr.com)

“Maliyah, step away from the mouse!” called Ashley Gavin, a software engineer at the MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and instructor at the Girls Who Code summer program. Maliyah Greene, the recipient of Ms. Gavin’s reprimand, reluctantly tore herself away from Photoshop to come and talk to Betabeat. We were sitting in AppNexus’s Flatiron office, watching her fellow Girls Who Code students work on virtually tagging brick walls with their names. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be,” Ms. Greene smiled.

She is one of 20 high school girls who gave up summer vacation to learn about app development, robotics, web design and other topics at Girls Who Code, a summer computer-engineering program for girls.

Though this is its first summer in existence, Girls Who Code already boasts executives from Gilt Groupe, Twitter and General Electric on its board and has been working with AppNexus and other New York startups throughout the summer.

Girls Who Code isn’t the only high-profile effort to make coding more female-friendly. Other programs have also received financial backing from fellow startups. Earlier this year, New York City-based Hacker School, a freeform three-month coding workshop for adults, announced a partnership with Etsy, Yammer and 37Signals that would provide 18 grants to women who wanted to attend the program. Girl Develop It, a group that arranges coding workshops for women around the country, has also hosted meet-ups at the offices of Etsy, Twitter and Google. With few women pursuing programming careers, this move is an act of survival for many companies, who hope to increase the size of the talent pool–and maybe even grow revenue by leveraging an XX-perspective on innovation.

Indeed, labor conditions have made tech executives, in a word, desperate. As the Girls Who Code website points out, projections suggest that by 2018, there will only be enough computer science graduates in the U.S. to fill 29 percent of related job openings. Vaughan Smith, Facebook’s director of corporate development, told The New York Times that each engineer was worth $500,000 up to $1 million. And in an industry where the majority of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Etsy users are women, a female programmer could help companies to develop features that better fit that demographic’s needs.

One of Hacker School’s backers, 37Signals, does not currently have any female programmers on staff. Hardly uncommon in the business world, where only 18 of the Fortune 500 companies are run by women. As we’ve noted, the gender gap among the top venture capital firms is even more abysmal.

“It’s self-serving in that sense: showing women that they can be successful … means that we’re going to have many, many more really qualified engineers down the road,” said AppNexus co-founder and CEO Brian O’Kelley, adding that some female workers in the office were even inspired by the Girls Who Code students to learn more about computer programming. “It’s really just shown our employees, if a bunch of young women can learn to code, you can too. It’s really empowering.”

Of course, this all hinges on whether the students and women who enroll in these programs will choose to pursue a career in computer-related fields. While Ms. Greene is only a sophomore in high school, she said would like to look into studying graphic design in the future, and another student, Diana Navarro, said she is considering majoring in computer science. However, other Girls Who Code members are not so sure.

“I don’t know. I’m not very good at it currently,” said Lucie Pierre-Louis, a rising junior. Maria Gonzalez, a rising senior looking to go to University of Chicago, said she really wants to study business but might consider a minor in computer science.

“It seems like the number of the girls have family pressures not to remain in engineering and sciences,” said Alexis Maybank, the founder and CSO of Gilt Groupe and a board member of Girls Who Code. When they visited the Gilt offices, many of the Girls Who Code students asked Gilt Groupe’s female engineering interns: “What do your parents think about it?”

rasmus lerdof at hacker school Closing the Gender Gap: A Peek Inside Programs to Train Female Developers

Rasmus Lerdorf, the creator of the programming language PHP who now works at Etsy, visiting Hacker School (Photo: twitter.com)

If Hacker School’s previous co-ed classes are any indication, the program could directly benefit Silicon Alley’s startups. Five out of the six original Hacker School students later found a job in programming, and other graduates work at companies such as OkCupid, Betaworks and Tumblr. Startups including Bit.ly, Quora and Pinterest also pay Hacker School to recruit talent to their business.

“I just hope that by helping we can increase the possibility that there will be some great female programmers out there who we might be happy to consider for jobs if they were to apply,” said 37Signals co-founder Jason Fried.

Other companies are motivated to fund these type of programs as a way to balance the scales.

“I think Etsy genuinely supports the cause of what we’re doing in terms of a new type of programming education and one that’s much more inclusive of women. They were very clear that they would be happy and see this as a success even if they didn’t hire any graduates,” said Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, a Hacker School cofounder.

Despite the increased support from the tech community, Sara Chipps, the co-founder of Girl Develop It, noted that this new breed of non-profit female-oriented educational programs sometimes has a more difficult time getting funded than their less gender-specific counterparts. She declined to comment on whether this was the case with Girl Develop It, but she did say similar initiatives have gotten stuck in the funding phase.

Ms. Chipps said she thinks this problem arises because “organizations that usually donate to nonprofits really don’t have an understanding of what we’re doing because it really hasn’t been done before.”

She pointed to the difficulty Black Girls Code, a program that aims to educate female minority students in programming, faced when trying to raise $18,500 through IndieGoGo. While more than 400 individuals contributed to the campaign, the program only received about five donations over $150. Within 33 hours of closing, the campaign had only raised $12,477. The project eventually raised more than $21,000, but only after two local companies–RailsBridge and Blazing Cloud–agreed to match up to $2,000 of donations.

Black Girls Code had a harder time raising than similar IndieGoGo campaigns run by more general developer education programs. Another, non-gender-specific coding program, CodeNow, also launched a campaign this summer to raise $15,000 for their summer coding program. Unlike Black Girls Code, nearly 20 people contributed more than $150 to the campaign, including multiple $1,000 donations. CampInteractive, a technology education program for underprivileged youth, was able to meet their $20,000 through a lucrative partnership with Nokia, who matched $10,000 in donated funds.

Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, said she initiated the IndieGoGo campaign because her program wasn’t raising sufficient funding through traditional methods, pointing to an “issue of cluster.”

“Corporations are saying that they want to increase the diversity across the technology and STEM fields, but kind of only focusing on a couple of organizations to funnel their dollars to,” she told Betabeat.

However, Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code who has close ties to the tech industry, said she did not have difficulty raising adequate funding for the program. Similarly, Hacker School was able to raise more grant money for women than expected. After admitting 23 women into the program, three more than initially planned, Hacker School realized more participants were requesting grants than the 10 they initially bargained for. Thus Etsy reached out to 37Signals and Yammer to provide funding for eight additional grants, bringing the total to 18. (Five women attended without scholarship money.)

Etsy has also allowed Hacker School to operate out of its Brooklyn office, a situation that Mr. Bergson-Shilcock said has proven very beneficial for the program’s participants. Working in Etsy’s office has provided “a lot of cross-pollination and mingling,” he said, noting that Etsy employees and Hacker School students have had a lot of time to interact during the twice-weekly companywide lunch called Eatsy.

Ms. Saujani said their partnership with tech companies has helped her students get a better, less stereotypical vision of what it is like to work in the tech industry. After touring Google’s plush New York office (which includes a tricked-out bistro, rooftop garden and gaming room), “One of the girls said, ‘If this is work, I’m going to work everyday,’” Ms. Saujani recalled. The girls have also worked with a series of speakers and will eventually choose one of these speakers as their mentor.

“There’s really this community of people that are coming around these girls and lifting them up and helping them,” Ms. Saujani said. “We’re already changing the cultural stereotypes of what a computer scientist looks like or feels like or sounds like. And it’s powerful.”