Community Building, Women in Tech April 11, 2016 jess One comment

Keeping women who come out of the pipeline

In January, PyLadies and Dev Bootcamp Chicago hosted a showing of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap. It was one of the most attended community events DBC Chicago has hosted in its three years of operation. We had to turn people away because there wasn’t enough space to seat everyone who wanted to attend. It was amazing to see a community form to discuss recruiting and retaining women.

Code itself primarily addresses the pipeline, or the issue of getting girls and women interested in STEM. The documentary identifies retention as an issue, but does not explore it in depth. Retention, however, was the primary focus of community discussion after the film.

Making space

One of my main takeaways from the event is that you hear different conversations in a room full of women than you might otherwise hear. They range from “I’m so glad there’s wine. I’m getting sick of pizza and beer,” to “How do we promote STEM education without devaluing other fields?” We heard panelists and audience members say they need to be exceptional just to be perceived as “good enough.” We heard them talk about the physical lack of women in technical spaces. About fear of sexual harassment and lack of consequences for their harassers.

It can sometimes be difficult for me to articulate why women need dedicated spaces. It seems so obvious that it catches me off guard when I’m asked to defend the idea. But this screening burst at the seams with women ready to talk about things that just aren’t discussed in rooms filled primarily with men. There’s clearly a community need that isn’t getting met here.

Language agnostic gatherings for women are hard to come by. Events designed for women tend to focus on teaching beginner skills, not building community. Women leave STEM fields at several times the rate that men do. Panelists and audience members both identified peer support from other women as crucial. It keeps us motivated and engaged in our careers. So why aren’t there more of these spaces? What can local organizations do to fill this void?

Mentorship

As our careers progress, mentorship becomes less about code reviews or salary negotiation advice, and more about networking and support. Local communities should provide more opportunities for organic mentorships to grow by facilitating social as well as skills oriented events.

Intermediate and Advanced Workshops

Because the industry obsesses over pipeline, many meetups focus on “writing your first line of code,” or “learning to be an excellent beginner.”  These are valuable tools for newcomers and for developers who want to try their hand at teaching.  They also ignore a large audience looking for meatier material to hone their skills.

Project Work Nights

Tackle an OSS project that needs the rust brushed off. Come up with a fun project that plays to your group’s skills.

One of the main audience criticisms of pipeline problem solutions is that they can devalue other types of education. But coding doesn’t need to be an and end unto itself. Get some musicians together to hack on a unique melody generator. See if you can teach sentiment analysis using fan transcriptions of Star Trek scripts. There are endless possibilities for projects that incorporate other disciplines. Bonus: they aren’t nearly as boring as your standard fare whiteboard problems.

Conference Talk Watch Parties

Not everyone can afford to attend conferences. Women who can’t go miss out on important networking, education, and entertainment.

Many conferences record their presentations and make them available online. Pick a conference and run the highlights. Or maybe pick talks from several different conferences that all focus on the same theme. Discuss the highlights afterwards. Provide a local networking opportunity for people who don’t have the luxury to travel.

So this is all just for women? No men allowed?

I can’t speak for every organization, but Chicago PyLadies is open to everyone. We have a Code of Conduct that we expect everyone to observe, and that’s all we ask of our attendees. But we design our events with women as the intended audience. There are issues and experiences specific to being a woman in tech.

When broad user groups focus occasional meetings or workshops on women in tech, it can come off as dismissive and condescending. Our experience as women is inextricable from our experience in the industry. But when we talk about our experience, even from a technical perspective, it’s often labeled under “women’s issues.” The fact that women are not the default means our voices are often categorized as “other.” It’s not something we can address in occasional one off meetings at the local user group. Women want to have conversations that won’t happen at your weekly Hack Night.

So yes, anyone can come. Maybe someday we’ll live in a climate where women won’t need dedicated spaces. That’s our goal too. But until then, women are our priority.

Lorena Mesa and I wrote a post about the documentary screening, talking more specifically about our panel’s responses to questions. Read that post on Lorena’s site or the Dev Bootcamp blog.

Dev Bootcamp is scheduled to host future screenings of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap at each of their locations. For more information, check out the bottom of this post on the DBC blog or search for Dev Bootcamp in your city on meetup.com.