Meet The Women Coders Who Are Britain's New Face Of Tech…

Shana Ting Lipton

The world of computer coders has classically been the domain of scrawny dateless male geeks getting ever more squinty-eyed behind laptops in garages and other man caves.

But, it's undergone a much-needed makeover in recent years, with women getting under the skin of software and apps to carve out a digital niche for themselves — and not a minute too soon.

Last month, Microsoft's male Chief Executive revealed that he thinks women should leave the thorny issue of equal pay to 'karma'. Throughout the year, Gamergate — the hostile video game community response to females in its midst — cast an ugly shadow over women in tech. Despite such Victorian attitudes, UK women are discovering female-friendly tech communities that are demystifying coding and making the JavaScript jungle more accessible.

The ABCs of C++

In recent years, stylish and user-friendly female-run coding schools like Decoded and Steer have cropped up on the Silicon Roundabout scene, proving that you don't have to have a computer science degree to understand the basics of BASIC.

Kathryn Parsons, co-founder and co-CEO of international coding school Decoded — which promises to teach newbies to code in a day — says that half their students over the years have been female. She marvels, 'There's something about being part of a campaign to take away the myth and cliché of what technology looks like — guys in basements, like in that film The Social Network.'

Parsons, who launched her own branding company at 26 and consistently appears on UK tech top lists, doesn't believe skills and style are mutually exclusive but sees environment as an essential part of learning. 'When you come and learn with us it's in a beautiful space, thousands of square feet, we measure the temperature and have an in-house chef,' she says adding that Decoded's two-week coding pop-up in Sydney was filmed in the house where Australia's Next Top Model was shot. Such smart styling has helped make coding more attractive to women. 'We're the friendly face of technology — no jargon, we decode it, demystify it', she says.

Amelia Humfress founder and CEO of London coding school Steer came to coding by way of fashion marketing. 'When I worked at Jimmy Choo it was predominantly women. When I left and worked in digital marketing and dabbled in a couple of startups, for a period of two years I never worked with a woman until I started Steer,' she says. Even then, Humfress admits it was just her and three male colleagues; it wasn't until after a half a year that the school drew more females. Nowadays, the Steer team not only has more women, but more women like Humfress from outside the tech world - such as a former graphic designer and a fine arts graduate.

The Creativity of Coding

Art, fashion and coding may seem strange bedfellows but Humfress says, 'Coding is super-creative. It's all about taking an idea and figuring out how to build it and writing lines of code to make it a reality.' Parsons shares a similar view and has backed this up with action: instructors from her school have trained teachers from St Martin's and Goldsmiths to code. 'Coding is the new paintbrush,' she enthuses.

Rita Bourma enjoys the best of both those worlds, working as a user experience designer at Net-a-Porter. 'I love the fashion part of it, the campaigns, the brands, the atmosphere and of course the style of the women I work with,' she says, 'I have always been a huge fan of fashion.' She admits that her tech team is weighted towards men but adds that the environment is collaborative and female-friendly.

At an age when most kids' idea of tech exploration is playing with Furbies, Bourma learned to code at seven. This seems to be the wave of the future as high profile initiatives like Google's $50m (£79m) investment to encourage girls to code is aimed at starting them young.

Professional Women Who Code

In contrast, Gen Ashley, one of the directors of international group Women Who Code's London chapter, taught herself to code as a hobby while working as a VP at Citigroup. She's since embraced it as a career, and is now running her own business while heading up the women's group with Vinita Rathi and Alison Woods, as well as working with half a dozen other local tech groups. 'The reason I get involved with other groups which aren't women-only is because women need to see that other women are leading these groups — which are mostly men at the moment. That helps attract other women,' she says.

Co-founder Rathi also came to coding from a top finance job, at Goldman Sachs, but followed a more traditional track, having studied engineering at university in India where she also worked in I.T. She explains that in the '60s women, like Dina St. Johnston and Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley, were running software houses in Britain. 'Until 1980, women in tech used to be about 40 to 50 percent,' she says, lamenting 'That number has actually gone down.' She believes mentorship — which she and her Women Who Code colleagues have taken it upon themselves to provide — is helping remedy that.

Women Who Code's London chapter — which now boasts over close to 700 members — will host its first ever day-long hands-on hackathon on 29 November. The goal: to get women to 'build something.' And so it is in the blossoming world of female coders as it is in life — if you build it, they will come.


8 Tips for Fresher Female Coders

1. Start by learning HTML and CSS and when you have a working knowledge of them make the next big leap to JavaScript.

2. Know your text editors. Humfress recommends the free Sublime Text.

3. Research and read about the tech industry for inspiration. Vinita Rathi recommends The Google Story by David A. Vise, while, Amelia Humfress suggests Dan Pink's To Sell is Human.

4. But don't over-read; roll up your sleeves and don't be afraid to start coding. 'Programming is all about failures; you get bugs and issues, that's how you learn,' says Vinita Rathi.

5. Explore the relationship between woman and machine. Kathryn Parsons is a fan of the 2013 Spike Jonze movie Her.

6. Join a coder community like Women Who Code or a co-ed female-friendly group like Skills Matter

6. Network with others at events like Women Who Code's hackathon and the weekly Silicon Drinkabout.

7. Practice makes perfect and there's no better place to contribute your coding skills than open source projects — which need more women.

8. Adopt Ada Lovelace, 19th century English mathematician and arguably the world's first computer programmer, as your patron saint.

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