It had long been an open secret in the tech world that diversity was a problem; that much was clear to see by simply stepping into the office of any tech company or startup coworking space. There has been a shift, however, over the last year, with organisations beginning to acknowledge their poor efforts to recruit and retain women, people of colour, and other minorities.
Dropbox, for example, revealed in 2015 that women make up 32 percent of its employees overall, and just 19 percent of its tech workforce, while figures released by Atlassian earlier this year showed that just a quarter of its entire global workforce is made up of women.
This shift in the conversation has come in part thanks to the emergence of organisations in the sector dedicated to engaging girls and women in tech, and efforts made by organisations such as Pause 2017 to ensure diversity across its three day program.
Encouraging more women into tech isn’t just about fixing the stats, however, it’s actually good business: a 2015 report by venture capital firm First Round Capital found that, of the 600 founders in its portfolio, those who were part of a team with a female founder performed 63 percent better than their all-male counterparts.
With 40 percent of jobs considered to be at high risk of becoming obsolete over the next 10 to 15 years as automation and artificial intelligence take hold, the future of our economy depends on getting girls digitally literate.
Helping inspire the female innovators of the future is Code Like a Girl, an organisation founded by Ally Watson to help girls learn to code through fun, themed workshops.
Originally from Scotland, Watson said the idea for the organisation came to her when she moved to Melbourne three years ago. While the number of women in tech back home wasn’t necessarily large, Watson said she had built up her own network over time and she was comfortable with her own place and the people in it.
Arriving in Melbourne, however, she was suddenly back at square one. Knowing how important it was to network and keep up with the latest technologies, she sought out events to attend.
“When it came to the night of the tech events, I’d take one look at the male dominated guest list and I’d bail last minute. That familiar feeling of anxiety took me right back to the beginning of my studies in computer science,” Watson explained.
“I’d become so comfortable in my network over time that I’d forgotten how intimidating in can be for a noob starting out in tech, but for women in particular, I believe the challenge is greater. Ultimately, it was in this moment that I decided to create a space that accommodated for others in a similar situation.”
It was then that Code Like a Girl was born, its name inspired by the viral ‘Always’ campaign launched a few years ago to highlight the potential of young girls.
Watson explained, “Ultimately, the campaign is about turning an insult on its head and increasing girls’ confidence and self esteem. I felt this message really resonated with my ambitions for the initiative.”
To further Watson’s vision and encourage more women to learn to code, Pause 2017 will be hosting a Code Like a Girl workshop on Creative Day.
The goal of the workshop is to introduce participants to the world of coding and give them hands on experience building the innovations of the future. In the workshop, Watson will break down the jargon and myths around artificial intelligence and chatbots to get participants building their own chatbot in just 50 lines of code.
Coding classes for young students are now all the rage, so what makes Code Like a Girl special?
In less than 18 months, Code Like a Girl has established itself as one of the most successful and promising female-focused tech education initiatives in Australia. It has organised 10 events across Melbourne since launch, working with over 800 young girls and teaching 100 girls basic coding and computational thinking skills.
The team, made up of 12 volunteers, brings over 100 years of combined industry experience to the organisation, with seven degrees in computer science or related fields between them.
Despite its growth over the last 18 months, Watson said the major challenge for her organisation remains removing the stigma that tech is just for guys, and that’s why female-focused events and workshops are so important.
Like Watson hesitated in attending networking events dominated by men when she first moved to Melbourne, the stereotype that tech is for boys means girls may not feel comfortable even in an equal mixed environment, let alone one where they are in the minority.
“Unconscious bias means that from a young age girls are not exposed to problem solving and electronic-based games in the way boys are. This disparity has led to a huge imbalance in the number of boys compared to girls who pursue technology as a career path,” Watson said.
“Coding is one of the most important skills of the 21st century and there is a significant talent drought. It’s so important that kids, especially young females, are exposed to these kind of careers and skills from an early age,” she said.
This is a cyclical problem; more boys encouraged at younger ages leads to a male-dominated industry, making it even harder for women to break the cycle, Watson said.
Despite this, Watson highlights the fact that groups with greater diversity solve complex problems better and faster, while the presence of women in a group has been proven to increase the collective intelligence of a group.
Diverse teams also lead to more creativity and innovation. A diverse team means a range of people reflecting on and creating solutions for their varied experiences, needs, and problems, leading to products and services which serve a wider market rather than the same niche.
Always looking to inspire budding superstar coders, Watson said Pause 2017 is the perfect venue for Code Like a Girl to hold a workshop.
“We’re always looking for new ways to reach new audiences, and Pause attracts a very diverse range of attendees from across many sectors, not only tech but creative and business. We were delighted to find out that we’re scheduled on the Creative Day, as we’re really hoping to get some first time coders in the door!”
Pause Fest 2017 will take place at Federation Square on the 8th-10th of February 2017. Tickets can be purchased here.