I’ve worked in tech for fifteen years. In those fifteen years, women have remained a small minority in the sector, particularly in technical jobs (read: programmers/engineers/developers). A lot of people I know have bemoaned the numbers, and discussed various ways we might address the gender imbalance, but I haven’t seen a lot of success stories (There are some – don’t get me wrong. Just not a ton.)
A few weeks ago, though, something big and wonderful happened. And it is going to change the ratio.
It happened, by the way, thanks to a bunch of smart male allies who put their values into action. So menfolk – and, of course, other folk – who want to see things change: listen up, gather ’round, and listen to the story, so that we can all learn how it’s done and make it happen again, and again.
It started with NYC’s Hacker School, which is a 3-month, 4 days a week, unstructured school for coders. (It’s not for total novices – they describe it as like a writer’s workshop, i.e. they expect that you know the basics of language and syntax and want to improve your skills.) It’s free, but obviously it’s a big time commitment in an expensive city, so it’s not something everyone can afford to do.
You apply, and if you’re accepted, you get to hang out with a small group of other coders and improve your skills through a lot of practice, peer learning, and some support from their small team of facilitators.
So far, so good, right? It sounds pretty accessible – cost-wise, location-wise, and philosophically. Hacker School aligns with most other coder-centric organizations, i.e. it is designed to be meritocratic and focused on sharing knowledge, open code, and peer-to-peer connections. So you might think it would attract a solid number of women.
But you’d be wrong. Up until this summer, Hacker School had only had one woman student out of three classes.
This summer, Hacker School has two classes running, and women comprise 23 out of 53 students. (661 women applied for the program, an increase of over 100 times the previous session’s numbers.) What changed? Three key things. (Maybe more, but I see three.)
Marc Hedlund, the VP of Engineering at Etsy (who has gone above and beyond to increase the number of women engineers at Etsy), called up the folks at Hacker School and offered two key things: 1. Etsy’s headquarters in Brooklyn as a location for the next set of classes, and 2. $5,000 grants to women students who declared financial need. (The third thing is access to Etsy’s community, which I’ll get to in a minute.)
Money is important, because women have less of it, on average, than men, so in order to even out the playing field, it helps a lot for women to get access to financial support when they need it. (It bears noting that while the original scholarship money came from the good people at Etsy, they later got more cash from Yammer and 37Signals, and were able to provide a total of $126,000 in grant money to 18 students.) 90% of female applicants applied for grants, which seems to indicate that money is a factor for the women interested in the program.
But I think location matters a lot here, too.
Etsy, for starters, is a predominately female community. This article says that over 75% of Etsy’s sellers are women – but if you don’t mind a bit of anecdotal evidence, a friend of mine who works at Etsy tells me the number might be more like 97%. Etsy also has a strong contingent of women on staff – granted, very few of those women work in the engineering department, but if you visit their offices, there are lots of women around, which is not the case in many tech companies.
When you’re a woman, and you’re assessing a space (virtual or otherwise) that you’re interested in being part of, one of the things you look for is evidence of other women’s presence. That’s not the only thing you look for, of course, but it matters. (The Hacker School organizers get this, too.) When Etsy throws its support behind Hacker School, and offers both money and a location, it sends a huge, unmistakable message that women are welcome here. Not just welcomed, in fact, but encouraged.
And of course, when Etsy put the word out that they were offering grants and a location for the Summer 2012 Hacker School, they also tapped into their massive network, which is primarily comprised of women – women who love DIY culture, and are therefore likely to instinctively get the value of Hacker School. They asked the Etsy community to help spread the word, and they did. Put the Etsy stamp of approval on Hacker School, and Hacker School instantly gets fem-cred.
A lot of “get more women into tech” efforts have not succeeded. This one has, and I think it’s because rather than inviting women into a tech space, Etsy invited techies into space that was already established as woman-friendly (and arguably women-dominant).
I’d love to see more projects like this happen, and succeed wildly. Lots to learn from this team-up.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that this is not just a feel-good thing for either Etsy or Hacker School. Hacker School makes its money by charging a $20,000 finder’s fee when their graduates are recruited by tech firms, and Etsy is looking to increase its numbers of women engineers by hiring grads. So this is one of those very nice situations where everybody wins.