With laptops open and coffee in hand, a dozen women joined a Code & Coffee session at Sola Coffee Café in Raleigh recently, where they coded web pages, shared tips on design and chatted about hobbies such as rock climbing and fencing.
It was a friendly, helpful environment – somewhat of a rare treat for the women, who are used to being isolated islands in the tech industry’s sea of testosterone.
The company also organizes local get-togethers, such as the Code & Coffee event at Sola.
Rachael Hobbs, organizer of the Triangle chapter, said GDI wants to cultivate environments where women can feel comfortable asking questions.
“A lot of tech meetups seem to be more for professionals, and it’s a very male-dominated industry, so it can be intimidating,” Hobbs said. “You don’t want to be the one person who doesn’t understand how things work, and people are like, ‘Oh, she’s just a girl.’ ”
The Triangle chapter opened in November and is the 2-year-old company’s 11th. TGI also has chapters in Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Detroit; New York; Ottawa; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; San Francisco and Sydney, Australia.
About 3,600 students have taken classes offered by the various chapters. By mid-2014, the company wants to seek financial backing to expand to 40 cities worldwide, said GDI Chief Technology Officer Izzy Johnston.
“We have been able to successfully launch Girl Develop It in multiple cities with different economies, technology landscapes and cultures, and in each city, we have done well,” Johnston said in an email. “We approach building our curriculum from the perspective of someone who wants to bring their idea to life … and not from the perspective of pure computer science.”
“We believe that theory is best when it can be immediately and usefully applied to something that matters to you,” she wrote.
The Triangle chapter’s events and classes have thus far drawn anywhere from 11 to 19 attendees.
‘Some kind of community’
“It’s fun to get together with people who do the same thing as you. It’s not as common for women to be in web development, so it’s good to have some kind of community,” she said.
The scarcity of women – and minorities – in technology fields has long been a sore spot for an industry that prides itself on forward-thinking and innovation.
In the past decade, as innovations in social media and mobile computing have created a new gold rush in the industry, the percentage of women in technology jobs has declined. In the computer scientist and systems analyst occupations, the percentage of women dropped from 34 percent to 27 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Women software engineers declined 24 percent to 20 percent over that same period.
Women are making some gains in the tech world, including being named to head such high-profile tech companies as IBM and Yahoo!. When 37-year-old Marissa Mayer was named the new CEO of Yahoo!, the appointment triggered a wider debate over work and motherhood after Mayer said she would work through her pregnancy.
The National Center for Women and Information Technology says the industry has a particularly hard time retaining mid-career women, who often depart the industry for reasons that include isolation, unconscious bias and sexism, both subtle and overt.
Sexisms often brushed aside
Rachel Nabors, a Raleigh-based web developer, comics creator and organizer of Refresh the Triangle, a designer and developer meetup group open to both sexes, said it has been difficult to keep women coming to the meetings she organizes.
“Guys just don’t get on their best behavior sometimes,” Nabors said. “Some women tough it out, but other women come the one time, and they feel isolated. They feel it’s judgmental.”
Nabors said that in her own experience in online communities, sometimes even when women air grievances on sexism, the issue is brushed aside. “Good developers know if there’s a problem, you solve a problem and then get back to work,” she said. “But sometimes, it’s like people don’t even want to admit there is a problem.”
Nabors added that she hopes more women will consider programming, software development and other technology fields as a profession, and keep working and networking.
“You have to stick it out, because there are women coming up behind you, and they’ll see that,” she said. “So, stick it out.”