About 500 of the nearly 600 people who attended free open-source programming workshops in the last year were women. Why were the numbers so different from what we usually see?
Okay, for one thing, the workshops, which mostly occurred in the Bay area, were aimed at women, if not exclusively for them, so that obviously helped. But according to Railbridge, which contacted us with a heads up about the numbers, "As of June 2009, the San Francisco Ruby community stood at about 97% men, and 3% women." That's Ruby On Rails, an open-source web application framework. (Please note that I don't know exactly what I'm talking about beyond what I just looked up. I could use a workshop myself.)
Sarah Allen, president of Railsbridge, got in touch with us to give us the heads up about the RailsBridge Open Workshops. "When we started we worried about how to outreach to women, but we have found that demand is not a problem," she wrote. We asked her to elaborate on why she thought that might be, and she wrote us this thoughtful response:
It seems actually that there is pent up demand for this kind of learning experience. There seem to be a few things converging:
1) There are a lot of women entrepreneurs who want to start businesses that require a web application, and many of them either aspire to build something themselves or want to know enough so that they can effectively hire a development team
2) Ruby on Rails lets experienced programmers build powerful web applications very quickly, and let's novice developers learn quickly how to get started and to prototype their ideas. In one weekend (Fri night and Saturday), everyone who attends the workshop builds and deploys a web application. That's pretty powerful.
3) Software developers need to learn new technologies every few years. If you step out to have a baby or just step into marketing or product management for a bit or stay in the wrong job too long, you can find yourself without the skills to get the job you want. These workshops allow people to sharpen their skills in one of the hot new technologies and can set them on a path to being able to demonstrate a new skill.
4) Most of the workshops are open to people with any level of experience. We avoid people who will self-select out of the workshop — some women who don't identify as programmers have a CS degree that they have never used or have been tinkering in their spare time for years. Also, some women who want to learn to program really have very few opportunities to do so.
5) The overall economy is still not so good. There are a lot of people out of work, even experienced software developers. There are a lot of Ruby on Rails jobs, so it is a good place for someone to dive in.
What does this one (admittedly limited) example tell us? That plenty of women are interested in gaining skills in areas where they're underrepresented, but are looking for the right way in. That free helps, and so does fast. And maybe the gender gap in tech isn't just due to women selecting out or some sort of inherent biological difference. Here's a list of upcoming workshops, including in Seattle and Chicago.