It's Tough Being a Woman in Tech. CoderGirl's Mentors Hope to Change Just That 

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click to enlarge CoderGirl mentor Katie Mathews says that she's been sexually harassed at jobs in the tech sector and that the experience "doesn’t leave you." - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • CoderGirl mentor Katie Mathews says that she's been sexually harassed at jobs in the tech sector and that the experience "doesn’t leave you."

Still, good workplaces do exist. That's true even in tech. For Brown, she had to change jobs to find one — but she says it's made all the difference.

"I wanted a place that was supportive and welcoming to women," Brown says. At her new company, she says, "I found women in leadership in various levels, especially in middle to higher leadership. I found women scientists who were being celebrated for their scientific work and their data science work. I found cross-training between teams and a real, true support for work-life balance. So all the pieces were there."

Mathews also had to change jobs to find her happy place. Realizing that she was never going to feel appreciated at the aerospace company, Mathews desperately needed a break from the suffocating "brogrammer" environment and craved something engaging and meaningful. She chose to empower student athletes by coaching women's basketball at her alma mater DePauw University and teaching mathematics at a nearby women's prison.

"Going to a prison to teach math seems like a weird experience, but I have never found more motivated students in my life," Mathews remembers.

With her enthusiasm and direction refreshed after two years, Mathews returned to the programming world in St. Louis, eventually landing her current dream job as a developer at a local innovation agency. Five months in, Mathews can't imagine being anywhere else.

"I'm going to give props to the head of the company: He really cares about his employees, and he wants to have fun at work and work hard," Mathews says. "He's super protective, wants everyone to feel safe and wants everyone to be able to enjoy each other at work and maintain this culture of inclusion. He's created a great environment."

Brown says that having women and supportive allies throughout all levels of the company means that they can influence the culture, removing the barriers that female employees must traditionally surmount.

"It is a tremendous difference in a professional opportunity to have a place that is supportive," Brown says. "Women can get comfortable talking technology because they're in a supportive environment that inherently trusts them. They don't have to prove themselves, they just have to show up and learn. So they get a chance to build an identity for themselves as technologists that's not challenged by all of this cultural bias."

Dodhyani began mentoring through CoderGirl with a goal to help put more women into the tech workforce and encourage new coders to seek out leadership opportunities. She had learned about the program through a friend and immediately connected with its mission.

"I reached out to Crystal [Martin], and when I got there, I became really excited because I saw all these women trying to learn how to code," Dodhyani says. "I want them to feel empowered, really. I don't think this has an end, meaning you can't stop learning; just because you finish the CoderGirl program or just because you've got another job where you're programming, it's not going to end there."

As for Brown, she says she's encouraged by her mentees' determination, openness and curiosity.

"I remind them that nobody knows everything; just keep learning and gaining skills," Brown says. "Practice talking about tech, using the vocabulary fluently, and get good at explaining your ideas, so that you feel like you belong. We do some whiteboard coding exercises ahead of interviews, and we practice describing code and code ideas during informal code reviews and goal planning. Many women come out of their shell during this process, and it's a joy to see them light up with ideas, questions and confidence."

Mathews, who previously went through CoderGirl's parent program LaunchCode before later returning as a CoderGirl mentor, agrees. She says she works hard to help her learners feel secure in the skills that they gain in their inclusive, women-only space before heading out to apprenticeships and full-time employment.

"I think there's a shared struggle among women all over the spectrum, but seeing each other struggle is empowering," says Mathews. "Having visibility of the people running the program who are on the queer spectrum or Crystal being a bad-ass woman of color leading the whole thing, I think she really advocates for the diverse space that it is. It's amazing."

Ultimately, that shared struggle is what draws the mentors to CoderGirl. Having walked their own difficult paths through the tech industry, they can't help but want to make it a bit easier for the new army of women who code.

"This is meaningful because I spent so long alone as a child and even into my early career days as the only woman doing it," says Brown of programming. "When I would try to talk with people and friends about it, they didn't understand; there was just no connection.

"So this was a chance to bring in more women in a field that desperately needs them and give folks the opportunity to succeed. It feels good to be able to help them in a way that I wish I could have had and to know how much of a difference it really makes in their lives."

Email Allison Babka at allison.babka@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @AMBabka.

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