How Developers Can Use Their Skills To Help Bridge The Gender Gap

The gender divide in the tech world, particularly in web development, is well documented. Many in the industry have been working to address the issue. From being involved in the community to actively mentoring women starting out in the industry, here are some examples of web developers working hard to effect change from within.

Mentoring female developers

As a firm believer in gender equality across all society, Envato Developer Trung Lê was inspired by the idea of helping to bridge the gender divide in the technical world, especially in his own field of development, through mentoring.

The Rails Girls Summer of Code perfectly matches his passion for teaching and learning, and was itself born out of a frustration with the lack of diversity in web development. Two years ago Trung answered a call to action on Twitter and IRC from Sven Fuchs, an engineer at SoundCloud in Berlin. He went along to an initial meeting with Sven and a group of other developers to design a program to entice more women to the Ruby community. The aim was to raise awareness of the lack of female developers and to do something to address it.

Inspired by the Google Summer of Code, they obtained funding from SoundCloud, GitHub and others and the Rails Girls Summer of Code was born. The organization describes itself as a global fellowship program aimed at bringing more diversity into Open Source.

Trung has been a Mentor each year and is a proud advocate for the Rails Girls Summer of Code. Mentoring involves working closely with the team to provide guidance and assistance regarding specific requirements of the project. Mentors ensure teams are up to date and getting all they can from the project. Trung’s first team was based in Germany working on Twitter integration with Spree Commerce. This year the program expanded to Australia and Trung was able to mentor a Sydney-based team a little closer to his Melbourne home.

The most significant change Trung witnesses in the girls that go through the Rails Girls Summer of Code is increased confidence.

“This year my team is actually creating a Spree Theme Market. This was an idea proposed a few years ago by the Spree community but no one has had time to create it yet. Working to solve real life problems is great for any developer looking to gain experience in their field.”

Trung’s team, Spree Girls Tracy Mu Sung and Catherine Jones, have had some setbacks. “Our original intention was was to learn by answering issues from the log or questions on the mailing list, but after a few weeks of trying this we discovered that other people could answer things quicker than we could even understand the questions!”

Trung concedes at times there is a skill gap between teammates, however this does not impact on the overall achievements. “The program is less about achieving objectives and more about tackling a project as a team,” he says. Indeed the Rails Girls Summer of Code site states ‘The focus is not on producing highly sophisticated code, but rather participants learning highly transferable skills from their project work.’

The team came to realise that rather than focussing on understanding the code, a solid understanding of the business logic and the business problem would be more beneficial. “If you can understand and explain the problem first in layman’s terms, then the coding part will be a lot easier,” they say.

For some being a part of the Rails Girls Summer of Code is life changing, with involvement sometimes leading to internships at leading tech companies. One of last year’s participants interned at Google after the program ended.

For Trung, the most personally rewarding aspect of the program is the relationship he develops with his teams. It is also a great outlet for his passion for teaching. On a more practical level, Trung has found the Rails Girls Summer of Code has helped his mentoring and communication skills.

Trung finds the personal growth from the mentoring experience to be immensely rewarding and encourages other developers to get involved. “It can be quite challenging and not always as easy as you think! When you work with people from other backgrounds, you can’t always assume they know what you’re talking about.”

Envato's Trung Lê finds mentoring challenging and immensely rewarding.

Getting active in your community

Sydney-based Envato Developer Toby Hede has been involved with Sydney Rails Girls for the last year and is a Coach for the Rails Girls Summer of Code.

Rails Girls was founded by Linda Liukas and Karri Saarinen in Helsinki in 2010. They were both passionate about making technology more approachable for girls and women. Rails Girls events now take place in many major cities all over the world.

Similar to Trung, Toby’s involvement with Rails Girls came from a desire to address the gender imbalance in the technical industry. “There’s a huge gender disparity in tech overall, and it’s even more apparent in development.”

As a lecturer at the Swinburne University of Technology Toby assisted in research on the representation of women in IT. “No matter which way you look at it, there’s a problem. Girls aren’t going into certain subjects at high school, the media reinforces stereotypes, the industry stays uneven. It’s self-perpetuating.”

As the father of two young daughters Toby would like to believe they will face fewer barriers if they do choose to get into programming when they are older.

“I took my three year old daughter along to a recent Rails Girls meetup for a few hours. Just having her sitting in a room with women engaged in technical things helps counteract all the other stereotyping and nonsense she’s exposed to from the media and all other angles.”

Despite the Ruby community getting behind programs such as Summer of Code, Toby acknowledges there is a way to go with regard to gender diversity in tech.

“Recently there has been a vitriolic backlash on social media with people disputing that a gender disparity even exists, or somehow defending it. If we can’t even agree there’s a problem where do we go from here? The vitriol seems to get worse as problems are spoken about. I guess at least the industry is actually talking about it now.”

Even in a relatively short space of time, Toby says Rails Girls are helping change the makeup of the Rails meetups. The community is becoming more diverse and is growing all the time, which is helping with the dynamics of the group. Toby says it’s unsurprising that the Ruby community is making inroads. “It’s a very welcoming and open community made up of a group of people who really care about these issues.”

As much as he enjoys being involved with Rails Girls, Toby’s ultimate aim is to one day be uninvited from the group. “In my mind, success is having so many female mentors that what I manage to contribute is totally redundant and unnecessary.”

Encouraging more Australian women to get involved in Ruby, or programming more generally, is something Trung and Toby are both passionate about. “We’re not done yet, you can always do more,” says Toby.

For those looking to get active in evening the balance in gender diversity, both Trung and Toby suggest getting involved with your local developer community. Trung elaborates “Take action. Whether that is providing mentorship for a Rails Girls event or just being friendly and helpful to female students and developers at meetup events. Make them feel comfortable, be open and understanding.”

For those wishing to build their programming skills or mentor, Rails Girls is a non-profit volunteer community and hosts events in many cities across the world. Rails Girls Summer of Code is recommended for students working in IT or programming, but anyone with a basic understanding of programming is welcome to apply.

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