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“Ladies Learning Code” Helping Women Crack the Coding Ceiling

Popular Toronto female-centric workshop busts myth that coding is only for guys, geeks.

“I want to learn to code (a bit) and I want other ladies in #Toronto to join me. Anyone at #swtoronto know any women who might be interested?” tweeted Heather Payne on June 10.

It was a fateful missive, as that tweet launched the mini-empire that is now Ladies Learning Code, a series of workshops in Toronto that teach female coding newbies HTML/CSS skills, as well as computer programming languages such as Ruby and Javascript.

Payne herself is new to tech; she attended the Richard Ivey School of Business and then worked in corporate marketing before recently joining Pinpoint Social, a start-up that builds applications on Facebook.

The coding shout-out tweet was inspired by a workshop Payne attended in L.A. organized by the PyLadies, a group of women who promote the Python programming language. “If this was what computer science class was like in high school … maybe it wouldn’t have turned me off,” she said.

Not finding a comparable club in Toronto, Payne went rogue on Twitter, and soon 12 eager women were asking for the date of the first meeting. Payne quickly organized a brainstorming session and was astounded to see it attended by 85 people eager to plan for what would become Ladies Learning Code.

The first workshop was held a month later and focused on JavaScript. It attracted 30 participants; a September workshop on CSS/HTML had 65 participants. A Ruby workshop scheduled for October 22 sold out in nine minutes, and a launch party is in the works for this Thursday.

Two-time attendee Suzanne Gardner, a writer, editor, and social media marketer by trade, has no background in coding. She pins herself as a typical Ladies Learning Code workshopper: grateful to have a friendly space to test out the world of tech.

“Not that I would be against working with men, but I like that [female-only] aspect of Ladies Learning Code,” said Gardner. “I am a somewhat feminist so I like that it inspires women to enter this industry and educate themselves about web development.”

Male or female, Payne cited the importance of having tech skills in today’s workforce. “It’s like math or reading … no matter what you get into you should be taking some computer science courses in university.” She acknowledged that she’d like to increase outreach at the high school and university level to persuade women that tech is a viable option.

The male-dominated nature of the tech industry serves as a barrier to entry. “I think there’s a general perception that tech is for guys and guys are the hardcore geeks,” said past HTML/CSS instructor Dara Skolnick. “It can be intimidating for a woman to get into a community that’s mostly men.” In fact, for women, increased awareness of their gender can be measurably detrimental to performance in some circumstances. Payne cited a study in which women were asked to identify their gender at the commencement, or end, of a test. Those who were forced to reply at the beginning scored more poorly.

This raises a question: why the inclusion of “ladies” in the organization’s name? Payne countered “When I think of ‘ladies’ I think of classy women, so I think it’s a good fit.”

What does seem to have Payne feeling conflicted is their need to rotate between male and female instructors. Payne chose to include men as she didn’t want to cut off the supply of talented male teachers, and also because she wanted the workshops to jibe with her philosophy. “What Ladies Learning Code is aiming towards is a more equal industry,” she said. “We need to walk the talk and have an equal number of men and women to be consistent with what we’re looking for in the outside world.” However, she also said that women tend to be more empowered by female-led sessions.

In fact, a man led the HTML/CSS September class. Gardner felt “a little disappointed” about this, though Skolnick countered, saying, “The women are there are there to learn, and if the best person to teach it is a man, then I don’t see a problem with it.”

What Gardner can’t deny is the wallet-friendly nature of the workshops (each is approximately $35, which includes 9–5 teaching, breakfast, lunch, and snacks), as well as the personal attention. A lead instructor is always complemented by table-specific assistants.

At the moment, Ladies Learning Code is entirely volunteer-run (both the organizing committee and the teachers donate their time) and operates on a cost-recovery basis. They’ve partnered with the Centre for Social Innovation, which provides event space in exchange for social media marketing support (the Centre won the mesh prize this year for their mandate to promote initiatives involving women in tech). Sponsors such as and FreshBooks are on board, with a title sponsor soon to be announced.

As for the future of Ladies Learning Code, Payne is resisting calls to bring the initiative to other cities. She says she’s only interested in improving the standing of women in Toronto’s tech community.

It remains to be seen whether the incredible traction of Ladies Learning Code will sustain itself. Payne acknowledged that she’s been lucky to find teachers willing to donate their time, and she recognizes the need to pay these instructors in future, though she’s unwilling to commit to exactly how the organization will evolve. For now, Payne is committed to connecting coding wannabes with the coding training they desire. A WordPress workshop is in the cards, as well as a session on Photoshop. Niche sessions, such as building an online portfolio for photographers, are also a possibility.

Payne is definite about one thing. “I don’t think we’ll be doing .NET anytime soon,” she said. “It’s too old for us.”

Photos by Jon Lim.

CORRECTION: October 12, 9:00 a.m. This post mistakenly referred to CSS and HTML as programming languages. CSS is a style sheet language and HTML is a markup language. We regret the error.


  • Techkik

    Great post! Kudos to LLC!

  • Suzanne Gardner

    Great article and glad I was interviewed for it! Although I need to think before I speak a bit better: “I am a somewhat feminist”? Should’ve said “I consider myself to be somewhat of a feminist”. Honestly, self!

    • Juan Changstein

      don’t worry, we knew what you meant. the bigger question is why only “somewhat” of one, and just not a complete feminist?

  • yaz

    This is awesome! Thanks TOist for the article.

    I’ve signed up to possibly help out in the future.

    • Heather Payne

      Thank you, Yaz! :) If you need any more info, @lauralynplant is your girl. She’s responsible for developer outreach, and she coordinates instructors for our workshops.

  • Laura Godfrey

    I love this workshop idea! I am disappointed that I missed the workshop on learning CSS/HTML, though — maybe they’ll revisit that in the future?

    I’m definitely going to look into this. I’d potentially be interested in learning more about WordPress and Photoshop, if they do end up teaching those.

    • Heather Payne

      Hey Laura! We’ll definitely be tackling HTML & CSS again in the future. To hear about all of our events first, make sure you join our email list! You’ll find it on the homepage of :)

  • David

    I don’t understand this. I started in IT in 1967 and the sex break-down was pretty close to 50-50 at Sun Life, Bombardier and BMO.

    My daughter avoided IT since both her parents were in the business. She discovered Computer Science in her first year at Bishop’s, graduated with honours, achieved a Masters in Computer Science and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biology.

    In my 40 years in IT, there were many highly competent women. Where is the problem?

    • matthewfabb

      Well, as someone who has worked in a wide variety of companies I would say many IT departments only have anywhere from 10% to 30% female workers. In web and application development even when there are women it’s generally more designers than programmers. That said, I know many awesome female programmers, so I think groups like this are great.

    • Pearl Chen

      I’ve worked in many companies, both full-time and contract. And in many of them, I was the ONLY female dev. In fact, there was only ONE company that had another female dev and that was because I helped hire her!

    • Ruhee Dewji

      Agreed with all of the other replies to this. People often greet me with surprise when they find out that I’m a developer, and I was the only female at my last place of work until a week or two before I left. The gender gap was not too bad for a while, but the number of women in tech dropped off precipitously recently.

    • yaz

      There *are* some incredibly competent women in IT. The problem is that there are not that many women working in the field period. In school the ratio was maybe 40-60. But now, 7 years later, most of those women went into other non-IT related fields, and the distribution in a workplace is 10-90.

    • Anonymous

      Not to split hairs (well, kinda) but developer’s generally don’t work in IT. I can say from experience that female developers are rare and I’ve definitely witnessed my fair share of sexism in the workplace from male developers. I can only speak from personal experience as you do, but our experiences seem to be very different.

  • An observer

    Good post, HOWEVER – yes, there is a however, the founder, Ms. Payne is in fact not interested in learning code at all! We watch her stand around and socialise at all the workshops (all workshops thus far) and inside sources reveal that she did all this to “gain more twitter followers” and make a name for herself in the Toronto tech community. She is driven by a burgenouning popularity contest in the Toronto Gen-Y crowd and while somewhat successful, it comes at a greater cost which is – teaching women that they can simply ‘appear’ to support women-centric issues while working their way up unethically on the side lines.
    LadiesLearningCode is a great initiative and I hope more success for for the group, however the misguided objectives of a 24 year old will likely lead to its demise.

    • Pearl Chen

      Wow, that’s unfair to say.

      Being that I worked with Heather and all the other organizers for the 1st workshop, you do realize that organizing the workshops (esp the first one) was almost like a full-time job for weeks on end? Lots of woman (and men) put time into it behind the scenes.

      And I can’t say anything about motives but I can say that there’s people who “TALK about doing stuff” and people who actually “DO stuff”. Heather proves herself as a do-er and a leader.

    • yaz
  • Ruhee Dewji

    I’ve been following LLC since the initial tweets (I was going to attend the first brainstorming session and then, somewhat ironically, got bogged down with coding work and was unable to do so). I really appreciate that men are included in this. I’m a feminist too, but I HEARTILY disagree with exclusivity, and would always rather a co-ed environment. There are plenty of qualified female instructors for these workshops, and plenty of male ones too, and I am really glad that both of them are being approached as resources.

    I would be much less likely to support an initiative like this if it excluded men. It’s always better to learn from and have conversations with as many people as possible. Ms. Gardner’s disagreement with having a man teach the course bothers me a little for that reason. If the most qualified instructor (who is willing to donate their time!) is male then why not?

    • Anonymous

      I agree with you on your points about excluding males. That just wouldn’t be right. Ms. Gardners comment about this is a bit weird.

  • Anonymous

    awesome to see this! BTW, HTML & CSS are NOT programming languages

    • Gillian Urbankiewicz

      Thanks for pointing this out. We’ve made the correction.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for pointing that out! It’s fixed now.

  • Colin

    .NET too old?

    .NET – 2002 –
    Javascript – 1995 –
    Ruby – 1995 –

    too old eh?

    • Tamara

      Yeah, I got a laugh out of that one, too. Especially considering the latest version of .NET was released a few weeks ago.

      Doesn’t really help our cause when LLC’s founder makes erroneous and off-handed comments that perpetuate the very stereotype they’re trying to dismiss.

    • Breanna Hughes

      No worries! I’m the techie of the committee and I know that .NET isn’t too old, and I actually come from a .NET shop. Since I’m in control of the workshop content and the roadmap, I get the final say on what we do or don’t teach (muahahaha), and I’ll make sure Heather learns allll about it.

      • Totechie

        Will you be teaching any workshops in the future?

        • Breanna Hughes

          Doubtful, but we’ll see. I don’t know how good of a teacher I would be. We have been lucky so far to have talented workshop leaders that have experience teaching classes and groups. It’s quite a talent and skillset to have, and I would prefer to source and work with those who have it.

          • Breanna Hughes

            PS. If anyone is interested in teaching a workshop, join our developer mailing list and let us know!


  • Rob Chan

    I am completely pro for this type of collaboration, but at the same time I do feel it can be misread. There is no ceiling that needs to be broken; each female I’ve ever worked with in IT, programming, telecom, networking has been 100% capable and respected within their roles. I hope that these workshops address the real problem which is the lack of women in IT, capable or incapable. Spend enough time around coders and code yourself and you will eventually get it.

    I am personally unsure as to why there aren’t more females in IT; I graduated my class in 2005 with only 1 other female sadly, though she was clearly the top of class.

    My hope is that these workshops address any misunderstood concepts of the industry and spot differences where another related industry i.e. Video Games Industry, can have.

  • Jacquelyn Cyr

    But wait… the objective isn’t to suddenly make women into developers, is it? It seems to me that it’s to make women who *aren’t* developers able to speak conversationally *with* developers through understanding of general principles. One doesn’t become a developer (or an *anything*, for that matter, hah) from occasional workshopping – that kind of thing happens through immersive learning (whether self-conducted or through an institution of one form or another) over a period of time. That said, I have a hard time believing that this initiative is actually about becoming a professional developer but rather about working towards making *non*-developer women stronger in a market context that demands an intense understanding of technology and the outputs tied to it.

    Are the attendees really aspiring developers (in which case: of course, yes, workshops aren’t sufficient!) or marketers/business types who want to broaden their knowledge base (in which case: yes, fill that gap!)? I’m assuming the latter and I think that’s great.

  • Juan Changstein

    you go, girl(s)!

  • Guest

    I’m a female developer who has always worked primarily with men. I think these workshops are a truly amazing idea!