The number of women in technology roles is on the rise but it’s still unacceptably low, particularly in the field of software programming. From gender quotas to special training programs, concerted efforts are being made by employers and programming user groups to encourage more women to enter the field.
One that’s seeing encouraging results is Rails Girls, a series of women-only programming workshops launched in Helsinki in 2010, which have since expanded around the world. The free workshops run over a two-day period and provide an introduction to creating software services and web applications using Ruby on Rails, a programming language which is currently in professional demand.
“It’s not that women can’t do it (programming) but they have a different focus, and a different way of approaching and applying technology, and that’s not being catered to at the moment,” says Susan Jones, co-organiser of Rails Girls Melbourne and owner of ReadySetStartup.
She believes the lack of women in software programming stems from the small number of female participants and role models in the field.
“Women aren’t getting the same access to resources and capital and education,” she says. “There aren’t as many role models around, and we don’t hear so many stories about women entrepreneurs in technology, so it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”
The Rails Girls workshops aim to democratise software and technology by minimising entry barriers, and providing a supportive, non-threatening working environment.
Participants don’t need any prior programming experience or knowledge, and there are no age or educational requirements. This approach also encourages participants of a wide variety of backgrounds and skill-sets to sign up, with the hope that participants may consider a career in software programming, or come away with an idea of how their existing expertise could be integrated with technology.
If the interest in the recent workshop held in Melbourne is anything to go by, Rails Girls is definitely hitting the mark.
“We had to turn people away,” says Jones of the event, for which her team didn’t have to do any advertising.
“It’s because it’s not threatening. You don’t have to be a geek or really smart. We’ve had people of all ages and backgrounds, people with no programming experience, and people who are competent in other languages. Women can have a go, get their feet wet, and be respected for doing that.”
Past participants have included an erotic romance novelist, an entrepreneur working on a business helping not-for-profits, an angel investor, a film promotions company manager and a number of web designers and website owners. The workshops also appeal to those who might be working ordinary jobs, but are interested in designing a website or an app.
Melbourne hosted the first Australian Rails Girls workshop in November 2012, followed by a second in March this year, and has another two in the planning stage. Brisbane recently hosted its inaugural Rails Girls event, and Sydney and Perth will soon follow suit with their own workshops.
Globally, a series of paid internships are in the works to support Rails Girls students to consolidate and extend their skills. Similar to the Google “Summer of Code” program, the Rails Girls Summer of Code internships will see Rails Girls graduates working with a mentor on an open-source project over a three month period.
The internships are supported by donations from software professionals and companies, including the Australian tech companies Envato and Front Foot. Interest in the program has seen the initial $50,000 funding goal surpassed, with more than $80,000 now donated to the fund — enough to fund another six places in addition to the ten that were originally planned.
Australian Rails Girls graduate Carla Drago has been offered an internship to work on Sinatra, a popular web application library, and a project for farmsubsidy.org, where she will assist on a data visualisation project on the amount the EU spends on subsidies.
For Drago the internship is an opportunity to get supported working on prominent open-source software projects being used by millions of people.
“It was a chance to give something back to the open-source community, and I’m really excited to be taking part,” she says.
She credits her positive experience with Rails Girls to her decision to apply for the internship program.
“Through Rails Girls that I met a group of women who decided to meet each week to continue our learning. Some volunteer coaches agreed to come along and help us. After a year we had learned a lot more about web development, built a couple of applications, started to coach at other Rails Girls workshops, and formed great friendships.”