Girl Develop It may have just started with two women and a sold-out class in New York, but today there are 57 chapters across the country dedicated to providing a judgment-free space where women can learn software development and coding skills.
And Girl Develop It is clearly a hit among women trying to break into technology, whether that’s just to challenges themselves in learning a new skill or looking for a career change. In fact, the Boston chapter alone just reached 4,000 members strong.
In order to get a look inside Girl Develop It and learn a little more about how the nonprofit is making waves advancing the interests of women in technology, we talked with Girl Develop It Boston Chapter Leader Maura Oray.
Q: Why is creating a space for women so important in helping them learn software development and coding?
A: I don’t have a formal background in technology; I learned it on the job working in an all women organization, which was really great because it fostered a community and made me feel really comfortable learning. I know that one of our previous chapter leaders, on the other hand, went to graduate school for Computer Science. She was one of the only women in that program, and didn’t always feel a sense of community.
Having an environment that’s really supportive, where women can come learn together, is critical. Technology is still a field that’s male-dominated, and in order for us to be able to increase diversity and women in the field, we need more of them to learn these skills.
In my opinion, the best way to do that is for women to see their peers teaching and to be part of inclusive communities, and Girl Develop It is a really good environment to do that. Especially where we see a lot of career switchers, it can be really daunting, and just to be able to come into a classroom and see people that look like you and are willing to help and are friendly, I think is such a major part of learning.
Q: Beyond teaching technical skills, what other programs are helpful for women trying to navigate the technical field?
A: We offer Code and Coffee on a monthly basis that we use as a networking event. We get a lot of people who haven’t started the journey to learning tech yet or don’t know if that’s what they want to do.
Anyone with an interest in technology can come meet us on the leadership team and talk to other women who are engineers and talk to each other. We also do talks on how to ace the technical interviews, soft skills, salary negotiation, etc.
Q: What obstacles to women face once they break into these fields?
A: Once women get into technology, advancing can be a challenge. I worked in the legal field, which is also very male-dominated, and our goal was to increase diversity and women and help them to be able to rise to the partner level once they got in.
I think it’s the same thing for women in tech — it can be hard to advance to those senior roles. At Girl Develop It, we’re trying to provide support, panels, and networking opportunities for women who want to advance.
Q: What do you feel are the main reasons that the number of women that pursue careers in technical fields is so low?
A: It often starts at a very young age. Women are often not encouraged to pursue STEM when they’re very young. Because of that, the discrepancy in skills just keeps growing.
Women that do go to technical schools and pursue STEM find the ratio is much more favored to men. Even though they knew they wanted to pursue Computer Science, it’s still discouraging because they feel like they didn’t belong.
Q: Why have more women been looking to switch careers into tech?
A: Women want to get into the industry more because it can be a really good place to work. The salary is often good, a lot of tech companies especially in Boston are very flexible with paid time off and maternity leave. They’re very family friendly, which is important for a lot of us finding that work-life balance can be very challenging.
Also, with everything moving toward tech now, a lot of women I know, myself included, really get into it and realize “Oh, I do like to code and I really do like front-end development; this is really fun.”
It’s at that point, when we have someone interested, that Girl Develop It wants to help her take it to the next level and become more confident in her skills.
Q: Why do you think it’s so important for women to play a part in technology? From a business perspective, how does diversity benefit software development?
A: If you just have one segment of the population making technology and working with it, they might not understand what other people need because they aren’t a woman or a person of color.
To have more people — more women, more people of color, more non-binary people — be in the picture is not only helpful for the younger generation to see that there’s someone who looks like them doing this, it also helps businesses because they attain a new perspectives on things they might not have thought about.
When you bring everyone to the table and into the conversation, you get so much more out of it than just one perspective. Someone’s background, their gender, their race are all part of their contribution, and to have everyone included just makes the dialogue so much better. It improves our businesses, our technology, our societies.
Girl Develop It is just one small part of it, but we’re trying to change that in an industry where it’s especially relevant.
Q: How can tech companies make an effort to hire more women and be more inclusive of gender diversity?
A: We love when tech companies reach out want to be involved, whether that’s supporting us monetarily or by providing us with a space where we can teach. In terms of hiring women, look at organizations like Girl Develop that are teaching them the skills you’re looking for. We have a number of past students who have been hired after going through our classes.
Q: What can other people outside Girl Develop It do to support women pursuing these skills and jobs?
A: I think it’s just spreading the word and being encouraging. If you know a woman or person of color thinking about going into technology, be supportive.
I’ve heard stories and experienced people saying that because you’re older in the game it’s too late to make the switch. To be encouraging for women who want to do that is really important and we need to work on that as well.
Q: What’s improved in the last couple of years for women in technology? What still needs improvement?
A: I’m always really impressed when I see how many women are interested in technology. It’s great to see women come to our events who want to talk about making that switch and who are looking forward to meeting other women in the field. I think the interest and willingness to learn has gone up. Also with more women entering the field, they’re able to give a voice to future generations of women in technology and others entering the field on what we need, whether that be more paid time off or work/life balance.
Unfortunately, we’re still not close to 50 percent women at most companies. I’m sure for a few it is like that, but for a lot of the bigger companies and for the majority it’s not, so we still need to improve that.
I also think salaries are still lower for women, and that’s a problem, but that’s not just for women in tech, that’s across the board. In the past, we’ve partnered with [the American Association of University Women] to host salary negotiation workshops, which I think is really important not only for women in technology, but all women in the workplace.
Q: What are some of the responses you’ve gotten from women that have attended these classes?
A: We’ve had people who have started as students and worked their way through the organization to be a teaching assistant and then even went to be a teacher with us, and seeing that path is so inspiring.
Teachers really love sharing their knowledge and helping students whose shoes they’ve walked in. They specialize in a particular area of technology and coding language, so to be able to share what they do with other women to improve their lives is something they’re very excited about it.
For students, I’ve seen a number people who have gone from our classes to learn more or take a Bootcamp and got a job afterward. Even myself, I started off as a student, took a few classes with Girl Develop It and then joined the leadership team, became a chapter leader, and even taught a class. Students just get really inspired by learning and almost always continue to take more of our classes or continue on an alternative path to learning more.
Q: What do you think makes Girl Develop It so successful?
A: I think our mission [to provide affordable programs for women interested in learning web and software development in a judgment-free environment] is really great, and one of our biggest priorities is having an inclusive environment.
We are an organization that focuses on women leadership and empowerment, but we don’t exclude anyone. Even though we gear our classes towards women, anyone is welcome including men or anyone who identifies as a woman.
We want to create a community and help change the society we’re living in so that we can empower women, make learning more inclusive, and increase diversity, and I think that we do a good job of that. Not only do we offer affordable classes, we offer a great learning environment and community.
Q: What’s your advice for women in the tech industry or women hoping to break into the tech industry?
A: My advice would be to keep learning and never stop. Reach out to other women that are in technology, foster a good community, and find a mentor or someone to help you in your career.
For women that are making the career switch, I would say to not listen to people when they say it’s too late to change because it’s not — you can absolutely learn what you need to know and you can break into it. We need more people in technology — we need more women, we need more people of color, we need more diversity.