Women Teaching Women Technology: Three Trailblazing Organizations

by Jen Lindner

It’s a moment of historical paradox in gender and technology: On the one hand, the number of women entering STEM higher education programs and fields is dropping. And the sexism women face in STEM professions is well-documented, as is the result: 52% leave because of hostile macho culture. But on the other hand, the innovative and enormously successful CS program at Harvey Mudd College is a shining example of gender balance. And there’s a rapidly growing movement of women teaching women technology skills: all over the Americas self-starting organizations are running hands-on classes to huge success. Coinciding with a rising tide of newcomer-welcoming efforts, there’s no question that enthusiasm for women doing web technology is growing.

Maybe we here at RailsBridge are incurable optimists, but we see the rise of women teaching women to code as a pony worth betting on. Girl Develop It, Ladies Learning Code and Web Start Women are all great examples of start up savvy applied to gender in tech. This is the first in a series of interviews with each of these organizations. Watch for these recurring themes: breaking down fears about technology, building confidence, support from their local technology community, the success of hands-on teaching techniques, and changing relations between women and men.

Girl Develop It

Founded in 2010 in New York by Sara Chipps and Vanessa Hurst, GDI has expanded to Austin, Columbus and Philadelphia – and even beyond the States to Ottawa, Canada and Sydney, Australia.

Alexis Goldstein and Izzy Johnston are both experienced software engineers and GDI instructors.

Which of GDI’s teaching techniques do you think work best?

Our emphasis on making the space non-intimidating. Just by saying that over and over, it encourages questions students may otherwise be afraid to voice.

What informs GDI’s choices in curriculum – is marketability or ease of learning or merits of the technologies themselves?

Our main aim is to encourage women to program, so our curriculum is mostly based around laying the proper foundation to support future learning.

The first and most important factor is student interest. We are very open with our students and have an ongoing dialog about their needs. We want our classes to empower students and equip them to face technological challenges in their careers and lives.

All of my classes blend teaching the theory via an interactive lecture and allowing students to play with the code in class as part of a lab. Besides teaching students how to learn languages, we also want them to leave every class with the feeling that they have built something that they can be proud of.

Are GDI classes comfortable for women, and/or for men (or not)?

Alexis: I do think it is a very comfortable experience for the women in the class. I also teach classes that are mostly men, and I find that the women who’ve taken classes with me both in and outside GDI tend to prefer the GDI class. One of my favorite by-products is watching the men (who are normally the minority in a GDI class) adjust to being in a predominantly female environment. I do think it’s a unique experience for many of them, and I suspect it does inform their behavior.

Do you see any social/cultural changes in your larger technology community resulting from GDI’s work?

Izzy: I have had multiple students come back to me months after taking my course to tell me that they were able to get a new job or that they received a promotion because of the class they had with me. But we want our students to reap more than just financial rewards. We want people who might be uncomfortable with the traditional world of computer science to learn they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them with the knowledge and the confidence that they have gained.

And I have seen more women attend hackathons, go to NY tech meetups, and generally participate in the tech scene. There is nothing more rewarding as an instructor to see than a student gain confidence and be able to insert her/himself into a conversation that they felt they couldn’t be a part of before.

Do the women you train stay in touch with you and each other?

Alexis: Some of them do send me their websites and projects after the class, which I always enjoy seeing. It’s wonderful to see their end product and what they’re able to do with the skills they learn.

Izzy: Many of my students email me today with a variety of questions. We also have a growing community of people on Twitter who support one another well after the courses they have taken.

What have you learned while doing this? What advice would you give on teaching to other groups or individuals who would like to do this themselves?

Izzy: I’ve learned that the most important gift you can give a student is not knowledge of a specific language but knowledge that they are capable of learning a language. I would advise anyone who wants to be involved in instruction that the first issue you have to address is never about the language. Not “What is a variable?” or “What does a for loop do?” The first issue you have to address is making sure each person in the room believes that they are capable of learning everything you are about to tell them. From your curriculum, to your slides, to your attitude–create a class that builds confidence at every step.

Alexis Goldstein
Izzy Johnston

More about the instructors: Alexis had conducted training sessions during her seven years as software developer on Wall Street, though most of them were via phone conferences. Teaching in a formal setting was new to her, though something she’d always wanted to do. Izzy has over seven years of instructional experience in software development and has been coding for twelve, and is also obtaining her Master’s at Pratt in Information and Library Science.

Women Teaching Women Technology: Three Trailblazing Organizations