"Ladies Learning Code" Helping Women Crack the Coding Ceiling
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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 Well.ca 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.