The Girl Code

27 September 2016

Computer programming has always been seen as a boy’s club, but these local groups and non-profit organisations are bridging the gender gap, one line of code at a time.

It may be modern times we live in, but technology industries worldwide are still working to fix the longstanding gender gap in its widely male-dominated field. To help bridge the gap, over the years numerous initiatives and non-profit organisations have formed with a clear mission in mind: to empower more females to be involved in tech and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Some of these movements have since spawned local chapters in cities all over the world.  

One such group is Rails Girls KL, the Kuala Lumpur spinoff of the international volunteer community founded in Finland. Targeted at females completely new to coding, Rails Girls provides free Ruby on Rails (a type of web application framework) workshops organised by a city’s respective local chapter. Classes are designed to get women and girls exposed to computer programming and technology, and how they can use these to build their ideas. Guides and materials are also open sourced on railsgirls.com for organisers to use at the workshop and for participants to refer to afterwards.

“Rails Girls does gives them [participants] a teaser to what they can do in programming,” says Jeannette Goon, who co-organises Rails Girls KL workshops. “We have a couple of lightning talks where developers come in and tell you what you can do with coding. Participants have to build a really simple app and they learn basic HTML, CSS and how the web works. For people who don’t know that they have an interest in something like this, we can help them realise it. Because that’s what happened to me as well,” adds Jeannette, who was a student in the first instalment of Rails Girls KL in 2014 before pursuing a course in web development. The freelance writer now also runs an e-commerce business.

Joining Jeannette in the Rails Girls KL organising committee is Faezrah Rizalman, a full-time software developer who happened to mentor the Rails Girls class Jeannette attended. They both share a mutual interest in digital education and took over Rails Girls KL when the previous organisers left to study overseas. Collectively, Faezrah and Jeannette are part of Code Play, a local non-profit society made up of start-up founders and software developers.

“I believe in the process. I know it is possible for someone with no programming background to actually learn coding in less than three months,” says Faezrah, who’s also currently mentoring a three-month full-stack web development course at MaGIC academy in Cyberjaya. “[In Rails Girls KL] I’ve had students who go on to have their own start-ups from the first event. They went on to learn coding on their own and now they have their own start-ups.”

Faezrah notes that her class at MaGIC only has four women out of 27 students, which is precisely why initiatives like Rails Girls play a key role in encouraging women and girls to give computer programming a go through their free workshops that are open to all ages. Jeannette and Faezrah also have plans to expand Rails Girls to more Malaysian cities early next year.

But getting women more involved in tech is just one part of the equation. An American study found that women in IT roles are more likely than men to leave in their first year, creating less female role models for women engineers just starting out. Women Who Code was thus formed in the United States to empower women to excel in their tech careers and build female leaders. The non-profit later expanded worldwide and now has an over 50,000-strong community from 20 countries which hosts over 3,000 free technical events each year.   

Part of this network is Women Who Code Kuala Lumpur (WWCode KL) headed by IT professionals Jecelyn Yeen and Chee Yim Goh, who kickstarted WWCode KL in 2014 by teaming up with local tech companies to host monthly tech events with specific themes like JavaScript and automation.

“Our objective has always been bringing ladies who are already in the tech industry together,” says Chee Yim. “Since our inception, we’ve set a different strategy every year. 2016 is our second year and we wanted to be more engaging with our members [so] we launched a series of workshops and organised a Teach HTML/CSS to Refugees programme recently at Fugee School (an education hub for refugee kids in Malaysia).”

What Jecelyn and Chee Yim want to make clear is that working in tech isn’t just about software engineers; WWCode KL also engages with ladies in product management, UI/UX designers, cloud engineers and more. Their current aim is to help these ladies excel through WWCode KL as a platform to network, learn and mentor each other, but the organising team may widen the group’s focus once they’ve grown to a sizeable number.

Echoing a similar mission is Gorgeous Geeks, a homegrown organisation which hosts conferences, workshops, programmes and networking sessions to encourage more women to use technology and join the industry. Interested women can sign up for a lifetime membership to get access to Gorgeous Geeks events on top of being connected to a network of like-minded women in the tech industry. Meanwhile, Girls in Tech Malaysia is the newest to join Rails Girls KL, WWCode KL and Gorgeous Geeks in the empowerment and education of women and girls in technology. Founded in 2007 by its current CEO Adriana Gascoigne, the non-profit was just launched in Malaysia on September 26 and looks set to introduce several Girls in Tech programmes in the coming months.

With these groups providing a greater support system for women and girls, we’re getting closer to bridging that gender gap in tech. Even the Malaysian government is playing its part in ensuring that both girls and boys are exposed to computer science at a young age: last July, Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) CEO Yasmin Mahmood announced that coding will be added to the national school curriculum next year, taught as part of a computer science subject. While some have voiced their concern over the execution of this programme, it’s still a promising move forward in recognising coding as an essential skill. Because as Rails Girls KL’s Faezrah puts it, “Coding is the language of the future.”

By Syarifah Syazana

Thanks to Women Who Code Kuala Lumpur for sharing their photos.

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