February 23, 2016 // By Robin Schroeder
Over the last 16 years, I have written software in many contexts; from eco-informatics to e-commerce, manufacturing to real estate, Microsoft to Linux, non-profit to small business to startup to corporate and even for my Mom. What I have not done is work in a team greater than 3 in which the ratio of male to female developers was anywhere near equal. At user group meetings, I usually make a mental note of total attendees, and then calculate a gender ratio. When I was a Java dev in Phoenix between about 2000 and 2006 or so, it ran about 6-8%. Last week, I attended the Chicago .Net Users Group meeting on Xamarin. There were 58 people in attendance and only two females – myself and a recruiter who left after the first 15 minutes. In CNET’s 2015 Solving for XX report, they estimate the number of women currently in technical positions at Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter between 10% and 20%. Why?
A lack of access to education is not a likely answer. Particularly in recent years, news media reports cite a growing gender gap in higher education whereby enrollment figures show that females consistently outnumber their male counterparts American schools. So, is it the nature of the work, cultural cues, or the stereotyped personality traits of typical computer programmers in the movies – introverted, highly‑caffeinated, and socially awkward? Does that make the profession unappealing to women?
Internally, the imbalance has always bugged me and I have quietly wished that there was something I could do about it. Last fall, while touring a new local co-working space with my husband, I caught mention of a Girls Who Code chapter that was trying to organize locally. Instinctually, (to my astonishment) I blurted out, “Girls Who Code?!? Girls Don’t Code.” And before I could muster up another obnoxious word, I was fishing a business card out of my purse to figure out some way to sign up as an instructor. Now, months later, we have a core group of about a dozen girls that meet every Friday night and learn to code.
We started with the GirlsWhoCode.org curriculum and Scratch projects to create basic animations and video games. Once the girls understood variables, loops, events and the like, I brought in a Makey Makey. The Makey Makey, with its Arduino core and alligator clips enabled us to create our own ‘keyboards’ to play the Scratch video games the group members previously created. Last week, my son demonstrated his Raspberry Pi-based Piper I acquired for him through KickStarter. If you aren’t familiar with it, Piper is basically a computer kit with a breadboard and peripherals that kids assemble in order to learn engineering through Minecraft.
Apparently, the tide changing in other places as well. Barbie’s 2016 Career of the Year is a Game Developer, complete with a headset, trendy dark rim glasses and jeans. The crew of the Mars mission in the movie Martian is nicely balanced with bright, problem-solving people of both genders. My daughter’s Brownie Scout Troop leader invited me to help run an Hour of Code session with the whole troop last week. Not to mention, no one can deny that we now live in a universe in which not only can a girl drive the Millennium Falcon, but she can fix it too.