Seattle is ripe with techies. You can’t swing a mouse in this city without hitting a dozen web developers. And most of them are dudes. But there are scores of educated lady techies, and some of them are having trouble getting the jobs they trained for or succeeding in the jobs they have.
Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack is co-founder of LadyCoders, a Seattle-based group that is helping women trained in software and web development get jobs.
“There’s a disconnect between the amount of training women get, and their ability to get technical jobs. We found that a lot of women were being tracked away from the technical jobs they want to be in, that they love, and have the capacity to do, just from some of the expectations and unconscious biases they face in technical interviews.”
A contractor, Tarah has gone on over 300 technical interviews, only one of which was conducted by a woman. She wants to use what she’s learned to help other lady coders succeed. So in October, the first LadyCoder seminar was born, inspired by a talk Tarah gave at GeekGirlCon.
“I proposed a panel called ‘A Career As a Lady Coder’ and the line was out the door. We didn’t know it was going to be that big. We overfilled the conference hall. I thought, a little bit later on, I should write a book. I should do something to teach these women what I know.”
A Kickstarter campaign was launched, $26,000 was raised, and the LadyCoder seminars were born.
“They’re hell boot camps and they teach you exactly how to handle multi-day, round robin technical interviews. We start in the morning with how you look, end up at the end of the day with how you’re going to be coding on the white board. We start the next morning with what it’s like to be a woman on the job. What do you do when you are the only woman, who is a web developer, in a 10-person one-room start-up. And you just found out you’re pregnant. You’re going to have to nurse a baby with nine guys hanging out in the same room as you. So what do you do? We have the legal answers, as well as the real social answers to that. We end the day with our attendees presenting projects that they have formed over the course of those two days. We really focus on creating start-ups. These were women that didn’t know that they could do it and now they can.”
Tarah is quick to point out that it isn’t men against women, but in a male dominated industry, a woman simply needs to know what she’s up against.
“It is a sensitive issue to say that women need to conform to an expectation. That’s not what we’re advocating and never has been. Instead, what we do is advocate that women understand what the guys running technical interviews are looking for. Find a way to use their own personalities, their own abilities, to give these guys an experience of their competence, of their confidence and their abilities without comprising who they are as people. It’s really not the battle of the sexes. Instead it’s about understanding where the person you are talking to is coming from.”
When I asked Tarah if it was tough for women to enter a start-up where 15 guys are sitting around talking Battlestar Galactica and playing video games, I was instantly scoffed at.
“Most of the women who are attracted to technical industries, to work as a software developer, they already are nerds. They’re giant geeks! They’re gamers, they love puzzles, they love taking things apart, they love Dr. Who, they love “Star Trek.” There’s a certain kind of person who wants to be a software developer. What we try to do is make sure that women, who are that kind of person, are not discouraged from that unconscious social bias that we see happening every day, where women are tracked away from technical positions.”
The next Seattle LadyCoders seminar is in April and, in the meantime, Tarah has organized seminars in New York and Boulder.
“You can handle being in tech and having power and ambition and money and joy and creativity in what you do. We want to give you the opportunity to make you as much as you want to be and we’ll help you.”
Exterior photo by Alan Taylor Photography/courtesy the LadyCoders Facebook page