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Lessons Learned From Rails Girls and Why We Really Do Need More Women in Tech

It can be surprisingly easy to not notice things because “that’s just the way it is”. I have to admit I used to feel that way about the lack of women in tech. Just as a lot of women in the industry, I quickly started to think of myself as on of the guys and not even notice that I’m consistently a part of a minority at most tech events. In some ways, I was lucky that my mom was a geek even before that was a fashionable word and that I grew up without ever knowing computers were boys’ toys. But once you do start paying attention, it’s impossible to turn the other way.

Self-driving cars will be on our roads soon, so why is it that seeing a large group of girls in front of a computer science faculty is still an exception reserved for Rails Girls events? 

Once you notice the gap, it stings your eyes

I first started paying attention a few years ago. Ok, I’m one of the few women in tech. But surely things are changing because it’s getting easier to get involved in the field? I mean, it’s not like you’ve got to be super geeky to have a computer in 2013, programming languages have actually become readable to mere mortals, and you can learn how to code online. Yeah, all right, I see more girls popping up at events, but not nearly enough. Andraž Tori recently did a great analysis of women in computer science at University in Ljubljana and the data doesn’t really show any positive trends.

Which is all why I agreed to do lecture at MobileCamp Ljubljana almost exactly two years ago: Android for girls: a new frontier. I was quite self-conscious about speaking about about the topic. But you know what? It actually got a lot of positive attention! I realized that a lot of guys, developers, in fact don’t usually think about half of their potential customers and they welcomed my practical tips on how to make apps more women (aka human) friendly! Crazy, right?

Why is it even important to get more women in tech?

After that experience it was easier for me to do a couple of more lectures on the topic of women in IT and especially startups. And while I was preparing the lectures (you can browse the slides below), I discovered more and more research pointing to the fact that this is a real issue in most parts of the world! Women are increasingly more interested in technology, from the consumer side, but they are not as actively involved in the creation of technology. Which of course means that we have tons of gadgets and apps on the market that were clearly made by white, straight guys living in a tech bubble. Nothing wrong by being a white, straight guy, mind you, but that’s not even a majority group in the world. So how can we get all other groups to join the fun?



My suspicious were confirmed by reading applications for Rails Girls

One thing I found I could do was to accept the challenge of organizing Rails Girls, a programming workshop for girls. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. The demand blew our mind. Surpassed even the wildest expectations. And by reading through each and every one of the 586 applications for our first workshop, I did get further proof that this was a real issue.

Girls, women of all ages are eager to learn about how the tools we use every day are made. Telling us about how their boyfriends, fathers, other men in their lives, dismiss their interest in technology with “You wouldn’t understand.” or “You wouldn’t find that interesting.” Women of all ages saying they always felt like programming was only for guys. Women embracing the opportunity to learn a technical subject in a safe environment where guys can’t accuse them of asking stupid questions. And so on and on.

Photo by Katarina Jazbec
I already wrote about what a magical event our first Rails Girls workshop was. Not just because of the girls’ enthusiasm, but also because of our wonderful coaches. Guys and girls, experienced programmers, most without teaching experience. All eager to do it again.

Rails Girls Ljubljana strikes again, this time with high school girls

And we did it again. This time with the help of the Faculty of Computer in Information Science here in Ljubljana. As we were discussing a joint workshop, we realized we could do a workshop just before high school students in our country decide where to continue their education. And so we specifically tried to promote the workshop among high school girls. This time we got 135 applications, though only 50 girls were under the age of 19 (I’m sure we’d get way more applications if we hadn’t specified the event was mainly for high schoolers).


We accepted all high school girls who applied. And on March 2 had another great event. It was a bit different though. Some girls were more shy, one even gave up after a mere hour - we had no such case at our first workshop, where the average age was well above 30. But some of the girls were even more eager than last time. Three interesting stories stood out for me:
  • A group of girls was interested in seeing the server room at the faculty.
  • Another group was discussing about making an app for rating boys at their school. That’s, by the way, how Facebook started #justsaying
  • A group told their coach they weren’t interested in the design tutorial. Instead, they wanted their coach to show them how to make another app, so that they would be able to do it on their own at home again.
So, you still want to tell me girls find programming and technology boring? All they need is a positive experience, and their imagination starts working at full speed! I was also pleasantly surprised when a TV crew visited our event, saying they got at least three emails internally saying they should stop by. And while we didn’t make it into prime time news, we had a slot in the Saturday evening news on the national TV network. If you understand Slovenian or don’t mind just looking at the action, you can see the news here.

Lessons learned from Rails Girls

To sum it all up, here are some of the lessons I have learned while getting more actively involved in promoting technology among women:
  • We need more events like Rails Girls. Seeing a room full of girls coding should be no more strange than a room full of guys coding.
  • We still need to figure out a follow up to Rails Girls. Advanced workshops, meetups, hackatons… I don’t know yet. But it needs to become a regular thing, not just an occasional flash mob.
  • Yes, you can learn to code online in many different ways. But it’s still intimidating for a lot of beginners, especially women who still think technology isn’t for them. The social aspect of learning and the ability to have a coach tailor the learning experience on the spot is very important for some!
  • Related to the previous point, a relaxed and flexible environment facilitates learning. Small groups working at their own pace, coming up with new questions as they go. All girls did learn a lot at our workshops, but they didn’t necessarily all learn the same exact things.
  • I really enjoyed working with the faculty on our second workshop. Their coaches had no problem embracing the Rails Girls organized chaos, and they also worked well with other coaches. And I think this can be a good model of academia and the private sector joining forces. It was great seeing coaches with different background sharing their knowledge and experiences with beginners. I’d like to see that happen more regularly, and not just with coding for women.

Encourage women in your life to embrace technology

And by the way, it is not a coincidence that I am writing this blog post on March 8, the International Women’s Day. It’s a day when my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of flower bouquets and kind words of appreciation. Thanks for noticing us for one day, but you know what? If we really want to help women succeed, we need to arm them with two key things: education and technology.

ICT is continuously transforming all areas of our lives, and we can’t allow half of the population to fall behind, to stay on the spectator side. Girls, women, it’s time to stand up, speak up, and embrace technology! Just because you have a womb, it doesn’t mean you can’t handle a computer. The first software programmers were women, let’s not forget that! And it’s not about talking over the world, it’s about equal opportunities and active participation in the shaping of a better future for all of us.

Eniac Girls started it … 
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want everyone becoming a programmer - I am not a programmer myself, yet I benefit immensely in everything I do by understanding how things work. There are a lot of cool things you can do with technology and soon we will have very few jobs that don’t involve any digital skills. Will you be ready for that world?

To finish on a positive note, I would like to point out that there are many wonderful initiatives around the world you can get involved in. Rails Girls, Geek Girl Dinners, Lady Geek, She++, just to mention a few. And in Europe we have a big partnership, Women2020, launching today at DIGITALEUROPE, “whose mission is to promote women’s contribution to achieving the Europe 2020 vision of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.” There will be many big scale events and discussions going on throughout the year, culminating in the release of Women2020 Action Plan in December.


Having just met many wonderful and enthusiastic women both from the European Comission and various big and small enterprises in Brussels, I think this could be a big and important thing. But in the end, it will come to each and every one of us, women and men, to play our part and provide support for women entering the field. I certainly hope I will have a lot more to write about the subject this year. And not just about the issue, but mostly about the results of our efforts.



Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2013/03/lessons-learned-from-rails-girls-and.html