The Charleston Women in Tech Pipeline

women-in-tech

An uprising is sweeping across the Lowcountry. As the nation buzzes about the pipeline problem in the tech industry, Charleston’s Silicon Harbor is taking measurable steps to support women in technology. The numerous women’s groups and educational programs springing up around Chucktown will play a big role in reducing the significant discrepancy between men and women in our local tech industry.

The pipeline problem hit the spotlight in October 2013 when Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, began this open Google document for companies to report their number of women software engineers. The data shows that less than 20 percent of engineering personnel from the contributing companies are women. The gender disparity in the workforce is the result of the discrepancy in our education systems. Fewer girls are engaged in IT education, representing in only one in five AP Computer Science test-takers. A CRA Taulbee Survey found that one out of ten computer science Bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women. Since Charleston’s talent pipeline is still being developed, ample opportunities exist to get as many women and girls involved in the field as possible.

Trident Technical College (TTC) has been central in supporting not only its own female computer science students, but the female tech community at large. Tom Brady, the department head, realized that women were rarely getting involved in the TTC chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP). AITP is a “support group [that] allows us to bridge the gap between education and occupation,” Brady said. Students are taught career-building skills, and presented with volunteer and internship opportunities to build up their resumes and start networking. A recent graduate and active AITP member, Jenna L’Esperance, was recently hired as the first female developer at BoomTown.

Unlike L’Esperance many of the women in the program at TTC are nontraditional students who have families and full-time jobs. They are either changing careers, or have graduated from their parenting years and are looking for a new one. Brady teamed up with Carolyn Finch at the Charleston Digital Corridor to start the Women in Tech group. They figured women students might feel more comfortable getting involved if they were less outnumbered. The evening meetings also give working mothers an alternative meeting time for their busy schedules. The panelists who were mothers all agreed that programming can be a very flexible career. Amanda Hodges of Zubie said “I can leave mid-afternoon to pick my kid up, and get back to work after bedtime.”

First Women in Tech Gathering at the Charleston Digital Corridor

Brady is central in righting the pipeline problem because, aside from helping launch the Women in Tech group, he also stays in contact with all the new women’s groups starting up and encourages his students to get involved. Another great resource for his students is the Digital Corridor’s CODEcamp, which offers industry-standard computer programming taught by professionals. Students are assigned mentors for personal career development. Many TTC students supplement their course schedule with evening CODEcamp classes. Thirty percent of CODEcamp students are women, and they expect that number to keep growing.

The Iron Yard Charleston is similarly excited to see its women student numbers growing. Campus Director, Sally Kingston applied to help launch the Charleston campus because, she said, “I see it as a way to really actively get more women into software.” The Iron Yard offers two scholarships for women and graduated four women from their first class. Now beginning its second session, over half of their front-end development students are women. Kingston also started the local Women Who Code chapter, which hosts monthly events at the Iron Yard offering the community another opportunity for students to meet and be encouraged by industry professionals.

Melissa Bixby attended a Women Who Code event after starting her first programming class at TTC. She has spent the last ten years in the medical field as a certified nursing aid and is attracted to the problem solving of computer programming—a skill that translates well from the medical field. She has two teenage children and her responsibilities at home are winding down. “They’re almost out of the house,” she said, “it’s time to focus on me.” The Women Who Code group is informing her of the opportunities in the field, as well as encouraging her as a woman entering the field.

The theme of balancing a career with motherhood persisted at the Charleston PyLadies meetup, which started last month by Cayci Gorlitksy and is sponsored by PokitDok. This is a group specific to the general-use programming language, Python, which was developed for increased readability and succinctness. All of the students in attendance were new TTC programming students, and the majority of them had young children. You could see the students’ excitement as soon as they sat down for a beginner lesson in Python. Despite having done a lot of extra driving and shuffling around to get to the meeting that evening, as soon as their screens lit up, so did their faces. Gorlitsky mentioned the idea of providing childcare at future meetings.

CWIC4

CWIC4: Second Annual CWIC Conference in Mount Pleasant

Brady’s students similarly populated the second annual Carolinas Women In Computing conference in February. Held in Mount Pleasant, the small local gathering brings the invaluable experience of the international Grace Hopper Celebration to a local audience for a small fraction of the price. There were many professors, local industry professionals, as well as women executives from both Microsoft and Google who attended and presented. A College of Charleston student, Joy Nettles, enjoyed the small, inviting size of the conference in contrast to the overwhelmingly large Grace Hopper Celebration, which she attended on scholarship last year. Nettles is excited about entering the field because of the different perspective she can bring as a woman. “I could see women just bringing technology to other aspects of life,” she said.

Nettles pegged the tension of the pipeline problem. As the human race becomes more dependent on our technologies, shouldn’t the people developing those technologies reflect our population? The Charleston tech community is on the right path to encouraging more girls to take interest in computer science through various programs and groups, which both support women studying to enter the field and give professionals a place where they are the majority. The problem of getting women in the pipeline has been overcome in other fields, and the tech industry is likewise addressing the issue. Charleston is setting its own foundation in which the women are educated and employed, an impressive feat for our small city with its growing tech community.

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