Boston efforts underway to bridge gender gap in tech

By Jordan Beckoff


By 2018, 1.4 million total new computing-related jobs will be opening in the United States, according to a recent report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology. But questions remain as to how women will be adequately represented and considered for these opportunities.

In 2008, women held 57 percent of all professional occupations in the U.S. workforce, but only 25 percent of all professional Information Technology-related jobs.  Similarly, in 2008, women earned 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, yet they only earned 18 percent of computer and information science bachelor’s degrees, according to the report.

Based on the study, it appears that women simply are not acquiring the skills they need to take advantage of the influx of tech-related jobs.  However, efforts are being made in the Boston area to bridge this achievement gap.

Women Who Code

Coding is the core skill needed to fill jobs in the technology industry.  Companies like the Women’s Coding Collective and Girls Develop It are stepping in to teach women programming skills that are quickly becoming essential to any business endeavor.

Susan Buck and Nicole Noll started the Women’s Coding Collective after realizing that there was a need for coding education because many of the women they had met had great ideas, but lacked the technical skills needed to execute the projects.

Women learning CSS at the Women's Coding Collective
Women learning CSS at the Women’s Coding Collective

“Being able to publish content online is a voice and method of communication.  So, if you don’t have the ability to partake and publish with that voice, you are already at a disadvantage,” Buck said. “We have women who come to our classes who are interested in becoming developers, others want to start their own business websites, but the whole point is to give them this medium and the tools they need to publish content online.”

Buck and Noll built a curriculum to teach women how to code and hold classes out of the Cambridge Innovation Center.  They said they have noticed that the women in their classes are applying their new coding skills to a plethora of professional fields.

“Our primary audience is professional development.  People that have been in the industry and they either want to move up to higher positions or potentially switch to a programming based job,” Buck said.  “But the range of fields people are coming from is amazing.  It’s everything from vocal artists, to psychologists, to painters, to traditional programmers.  You name it and we have people who are coming in to learn the skills they need to accomplish their endeavors.”

As the company gained popularity over the last two years, the Women’s Coding Collective had the option of accepting male students, but Noll said she realized the importance of sticking to the company’s mission to narrow the gender gap in technology and create an environment where women can learn, build and code together.  She noted the students are grateful.

“Frequently, members will say that they didn’t join the group because it was all women, but they are really glad that it is,” Noll said.  “They have gone to other tech events in the past, but it was uncomfortable because they would be the only women in the room. They appreciate the space we are creating.”

Girl Develop It has a similar perspective.

We want it to be a very comfortable environment,” said Annette Arabasz, Girl Develop It Boston chapter leader. She said it’s  “an environment where a woman doesn’t feel intimidated, can ask the questions on her mind and get the support she needs afterward, whether that’s with a current project, or with her career or to get ready for an interview.”

Girl Develop It is a chapter-based program that is located in various cities around the United States.  The Boston chapter meets at different locations and teaches classes to help women sharpen their programming skills and remain competitive in the workforce.

Women learn to code in a comfortable environment.“These skills are transferrable to any industry,” said Laura Vecchio, a Girl Develop It Boston teacher and chapter leader.  “Whether you are working for a web development agency, in marketing, or doing analytics for a website.  There are so many different avenues that these skills can be important for.  If you are starting your own company, understanding how the Web works is going to be essential regardless of whatever kind of business you are starting.  Understanding how these things come together on the Web is going to make you a better entrepreneur and CEO.  So any woman in any [industry] can benefit from these skills.”

Vecchio and Arabasz said they got involved with Girl Develop It because they both noticed the lack of coding programs for women in the area. Both women are developers at Boston tech companies  and wanted to use their skills to have a larger impact on the community.  Their experiences at their tech jobs made them realize the importance of including women in the technology conversation.

With the introduction of new technology and the need for improvement of current technology, good programming is necessary, said Arabasz.  

“We need good developers to help out with this, and right now there is a severe shortage of female representation,” she said. “That is a huge chunk of people that we can send into the workforce to help with these problems.”

In the last 50 years steps have been taken to improve gender equality in the technology area, said Arabasz. Even with these advancements, a low ratio of women operate in technology fields. 

In addition to programming, Girl Develop It teaches classes on finding better jobs, equal pay, negotiating for better salaries, developing portfolios and what to expect when walking into a startup company for the first time. 

“We found that a lot of girls have gained a lot more confidence after attending a Girl Develop It class,” Vecchio said. “We find that they come in a little unsure of what to expect, and they come out feeling empowered.”

Girl Develop It wants women to feel that they can walk into an office and get hired, said Vecchio. That is the ultimate goal.

“I have seen women come into their first HTML or CSS class unsure and now they are applying for jobs, getting hired or moving up further.” Vecchio said. And some, after completing the program, become teachers with Girl Develop It , said Vecchio. 

Early Computer Science Education for Girls

Girl Develop It and The Women’s Coding Collective have focused on teaching women ages of 18-50. However, many believe it is important for these skills to be implemented in young girls from an early age.

“Starting younger is really important because as students go through high school, you have more kids who may have been interested in STEM and computer science in eighth grade and by 12th grade they are not talking about it as much,” said Michelle V. Porche,  associate director and senior research scientist at Wellesley Centers for Women.

Kelly Powers is a computer science teacher and department chair at the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough.  She recently won Massachusetts STEM teacher of the year.  Powers realizes the importance of teaching computer science skills to kids at an early age.

“When we are teaching computer science in particular at an early age, it has a profound impact on the child and their problem solving and computational thinking skills.  Exposure early on gives kids a sense of what the field is all about and spurs their interest in one of the STEM fields,” she said.

Powers has been working to make computer science a core requirement in primary schools across the state.

This past year only 913 youngsters throughout the state of Massachusetts took Advanced Placement Computer Science.  Of these 913, only 179 were female and only 89 female students passed the AP exam.

National Statistics on AP Computer Science Exam Test-Takers from from the National Center for Women & Information Technology
National Statistics on AP Computer Science Exam Test-Takers from from the National Center for Women & Information Technology

The class is currently only offered as an elective in most schools and this discourages many students, especially girls from taking the course, said Powers.

“In the next 10 years there are going to be so many opportunities in the field of tech, and we are not preparing our kids to take those job,” Powers said. “I am really concerned, it has improved, but we need a massive infusion of computer science in our schools.”

About Jordan Beckoff 5 Articles
Jordan Beckoff is a multimedia journalist interested in traveling, cooking and volunteering in the Boston community. She received her B.A. from Smith College in American Studies and is expected to have her M.A. in Journalism from Emerson College in May 2014.