Girls to the Front End at the Women’s Coding Collective

women's coding collectivePhotos courtesy of the Women's Coding Collective

The tech industry may be on the cutting edge when it comes to discovering all earthly computing possibilities, but from a diversity standpoint, it’s not doing so hot. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the ratio of computer science degrees earned by women at major universities has dropped to a slim 14 percent, down from 37 percent in 1985—before the web even had its first browser. This problem is not lost on Susan Buck and Nicole Noll, founders of the Women’s Coding Collective (WCC).

The two Harvard professors started their coding education community six years ago in South Philadelphia. They relocated from what they call a “good soil” tech culture there to Cambridge’s more established and vibrant one in 2011. Since then, they’ve taught HTML, CSS and web design to an estimated 500 women online and in person out of the Cambridge Innovation Center.

“Technology is obviously a huge part of daily life. If you’re only consuming it as opposed to creating it, that’s a real differential,” says Noll, who describes herself as a “newbie” to coding.

“The web is a megaphone,” adds Buck. An experienced programmer and educator at Harvard Extension School and Wellesley College, she teaches the technical side of most WCC courses. “To put those tools in the hands of women and other minorities is important, so they’re equally a part of the conversation.”

According to Buck, she and Noll initially founded WCC as a way of giving entrepreneurs the tools to launch their ideas online. Greater Boston is by no means short of women with bright ideas, but those ideas need websites. A cost-effective solution? Teach women how to build sites themselves—preferably for less than $25 a class.

women's coding collective

Susan Buck (left) leads a group of WCC coders

A strict “no boys” policy keeps this goal in focus—not because men wouldn’t benefit from learning to code, but because Noll and Buck believe women learn best without the distraction of their own socialized disadvantage. According to Noll, flattening gender in the classroom can help female students forget about their statistical obstacles in the tech world.

That theory seems to be working. Jenah Blitz-Stoehr approached WCC with little more than the ability to italicize. Six courses later, she’s an aspiring web developer who attributes much of her full-time commitment to the support she felt in WCC’s gender-specific setting. “I always had in mind, ‘This is important to [Noll and Buck], and it’s important that I, a female, learn this.’”

Prioritizing women may be what got them into the game, but for Noll and Buck, it’s also a priority to to build a space where the marginalized can learn. “It’s great that there’s so much attention to this issue of diversity in technology, and I think often that gets simplified to women in technology,” says Noll. “Although it’s not said, what that really boils down to is white women in technology.” Much like Cambridge startups seeking to diversify their staffs, Buck and Noll are aware of and contemplating the fact that, as one of them put it, “Who’s at the head of the room says a lot about who we are.”

But it’s the women sitting down in the desks who say even more about WCC. Phoebe Sinclair of Jamaica Plain says that, unlike some other coding classes in the area, WCC made her feel welcomed rather than ostracized. “There’s something about [Noll and Buck] and the way they teach that makes it so I’m not the only black person in the room, and that is super rare for me here [in Boston],” she says.

To her, this model holds for the actual process of learning to code and the options that, as a result, opened up.

“It’s not a matter of being left out so much as you want the capability to go a new direction if you don’t like the direction everything else is going in,” Sinclair says. “You want that ability to make choices.”

This story originally appeared in our March/April print edition, which is available for free at more than200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription

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