Since the mid-19th century, women have shaped computing history. Today, only 20% of active computer programmers are women. Girl Develop It’s Salt Lake City chapter provides affordable education programs for women to create new opportunities for women and to restore the gender balance.
In the 1840s, Ada Lovelace created algorithms for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine - making her the world’s first computer programmer. In 1952, Grace Hopper led the team that created the first compiler. Her team’s work paved the way for COBOL, a programming language still in use at banks around the world. In the 1970s, Adele Goldberg helped design and develop Smalltalk, the first graphical computer system.
Girl Develop It meetup group organizer Stacie Farmer concentrates hard to solder her board at OpenWest conference. Photo courtesy of Stacie Farmer
In the years since, men have dominated the industry. Cottonwood Heights resident Nina Zakharenko, a professional software developer with over eight years of experience, says, “In New York City, the ratio of female-to-male engineers was pretty abysmal — about one-in-five. Here in Utah, they feel lower. It’s just my assessment from going to tech meetups, or walking through an office and seeing no women there.”
Zakharenko moved to Utah to take a new job and to enjoy the world-renowned ski resorts and rock climbing. Hesitant about the move at first, she drove through Big Cottonwood Canyon. “It was fall and everything was different colors and I was almost in tears with how beautiful it was.”
Zakharenko soon discovered Girl Develop It, a national non-profit organization that provides affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development. It proved to be “a great opportunity to meet other people in the industry.”
Girl Develop It’s Salt Lake City chapter has over 500 members, some of whom travel from Provo and Logan to attend meetings. Zakharenko credits the group’s strength largely to one of its founders, Stacie Farmer. “Stacie is so motivated and driven, and has put together such a good thing, that it does draw people together from all these places, even if they do have to drive quite a ways.”
Farmer helped found the Salt Lake City chapter after reading a blog post in October 2013. “I heard about a community of women in technology and thought, ‘That’s what I’ve been wanting my entire career!’ I was self-taught, and so I was incredibly isolated, and I had never worked with another female developer. I thought, ‘This sounds amazing, I wish I had that while I was learning.’ I thought it would be great if I could help create that.”
The Girl Develop It meetup group gives their “How to Build a Website” course two thumbs up. Photo courtesy of Stacie Farmer
Farmer has felt the lack of women at local tech events. “I was just at OpenWest, and I made a little women’s lounge, but I probably saw less than 50 women at that conference — and that conference had 1200 people signed up. I know what it’s like to go to so many meetup events and so many conferences and feel like the only woman there, or one of very few women.”
Farmer says that organizations such as Girl Develop It are critical for making tech more accessible to women. “As a society, if we actually want to make the change, and have more women and have more marginalized people in general enter the tech field, this is essential. One of the biggest problems is that whole experience of no one really looks like you, and no one understands what you’re going through.”
Girl Develop It hosts free meetups so that women interested in technology can feel a sense of community and not fight battles alone. “It’s so much easier if you have a whole army of people who are just like ‘Yeah, we’re in here too, we’re in the trenches, and we’re all doing this together.’ It just reminds you of why you love the field in the first place, just having that camaraderie.”
Girl Develop It also hosts multi-day training events, which teach aspiring developers the skills they need to work professionally. “The thing that I just love is we have so many total beginners, people who are just kind of curious about it. They’ve been able to advance their skills to where now they’re looking for jobs, and so just to see someone, like a little caterpillar, and they’re becoming a little butterfly now, and it’s amazing to see them working so hard for something that they love so much. That’s really fun for me.”
It’s not only women who see the tech industry as male-dominated. George Shank, a software developer from Salt Lake City, heard about Girl Develop It and volunteered as a mentor. “It’s always been pretty obvious that there’s a lack of diversity in the programming and tech community. I’ve always wanted to do something in that regard, like help others learn more about programming. I felt like I could have a decent impact if I were to help out in that way.”
Girl Develop It invites men to attend. “As long as you’re willing to follow our code of conduct and you support our mission, you’re definitely welcome at our events,” says Farmer.
Why do women need special encouragement to participate in technology? Shank points to micro-aggressions as a factor that pushes women out. “One of the best examples I can think of — and I think years ago I was probably guilty of this, too — is when you meet a woman at a conference or at a meetup, and you say ‘Oh, did you come here with your boyfriend?’ I think the person asking the question doesn’t have a negative intention, but what they’ve done is sort of said subliminally, ‘Oh you wouldn’t be here unless you were here with a guy. You shouldn’t be here,’ is kind of what it says.”
Farmer agrees: “You often are unfortunately on the receiving end of a lot of comments and remarks and little slights, that people aren’t intending to be mean, but you feel even more left out, or put down, and I think it’s absolutely essential to be around people who can understand what that’s like and who are there to build you up.”
Micro-aggressions don’t tell the whole story. Kathy Sierra, author of over a dozen technical books, canceled public appearances in 2007 after receiving rape threats and death threats. More recently, women game developers have faced misogynistic attacks in what has become known as Gamergate.
Farmer says she has not experienced any harassment as a result of her work with Girl Develop It. “I speak out about it on Twitter occasionally and I worry that one of these times I’m going to attract the ire of someone who’s got a bone to pick with me and they’re not going to stop, or they’re going to take other measures, and really go after me or my children. It’s a constant worry for me. I’ve been lucky so far. I haven’t had any problems with that.”
Girl Develop It provides an opportunity for women to share their stories and learn from one another. Amanda Walter, a software developer from Lehi, says it has helped her understand the shared challenges that women face. “My first reaction was ‘I’m a strong woman, and so I’m not afraid of whatever this thing is that women run away from in tech.’ Now I recognize that the problem is not that women need to be stronger so that they can endure these things, it’s that the problems in the workplace need to leave. GDI stands to raise the voice, to say ‘Hey these things aren’t right, this is what needs to change. It’s the problems that need to change, not the women.’”
How does it feel to participate in Girl Develop It? “It feels very comfortable,” says Walter. “Girl Develop It has been so welcoming. I feel like I have so many paths that I can take as a developer. All I need is my computer to make my ideas.”
Walter encourages anyone interested in computers or technology to join. “You don’t have to know anything about programming to come to Girl Develop It. We will help you. We will help you learn to program if that is what you want to do.”