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Women and girls find their "a-ha" coding moments

Two new organizations in D.C. are bridging the gender divide in tech. Here, Zoey, a Girls Rock On The Web (GROW) participant, shows off the website she built dedicated to her favorite books

GROW workshop leaders Glennette Clark, Sybil Edwards and Courtney Davis Burgwyn

They gathered in two rooms, five blocks apart, under the guidance of different teachers with one common goal: to learn how to code.

Both D.C. Web Women and Geek Chic held coding workshops on the same Saturday in June, which happened to coincide with the National Day of Civic Hacking. Though the groups' attendees differed in ages, they wanted to achieve the same end—to gain entry into a field that has been traditionally dominated by men.

GROWing Coders
Nine-year-old Lilly stands at a large monitor in front of a conference table where 13 other girls are gathered. Their parents and half a dozen volunteers form a ring around the exterior of the room. Lilly is showing the fashion website she has created. Fur accessories, she says, are in. With a little prompting, Lilly then switches views and a dozen lines of code fill the screen. She says that she chose not to use a background color for her fashion site, because she wanted it "clean and chic."

Lilly is just one of the girls who participated in a day-long coding workshop held by D.C. Web Women (DCWW), a professional organization with more than 3,000 members dedicated to many facets of online work.  The free workshop was designed for girls ages 8 to 12 interested in learning how to create web pages and was held at the organization's home base, sponsor Aquent /Vitamin T's office space in Dupont Circle.

Fourteen girls from across the greater Washington area attended the workshop, called GROW (Girls Rock on the Web) and learned the basics of creating a web page, including an introduction to HTML 5 and CSS 3. The girls chose their own subjects from music to diabetes, pet snakes to fashion accessories, and started their own conversations in cyberland.

"This can help us. Earning money, personal gain…making blogs about stopping bullying."
Shireen Mitchell, a DCWW member who started the GROW workshops in 2000, said that early exposure to web design is an investment in the future for the girls. Mitchell says, "If these girls get the basics of web design, they'll have the basis to go on to other things—Drupal, Wordpress, Python. They can navigate from one to the other having HTML and CSS as a background."

"We want to encourage young women to get involved in tech fields and in STEM," explains Sibyl Edwards, president of DCWW. The rationale for teaching tech and coding early wasn't explicitly stated but was summed up nicely by Jameelah, one of the oldest participants in the group.

"This can help us," she says, reflecting on her participation in the workshop. "Earning money, personal gain…making blogs about stopping bullying."

According to Mitchell, GROW went on hiatus in 2003, around the same time that tech centers around the city shut down.

Earlier this year, Glennette Clark and Courtney Davis Burgwyn decided it was time to resurrect the program.

As the girls munched pizza in matching T-shirts, they presented their creations to their parents and workshop volunteers during the final hour of the workshop. In addition to showing off the "front end" of their sites, each girl was prompted to show her code as well, reinforcing the lesson of what goes on behind the scenes to make web pages work. Shoshanna, an eight-year-old from Arlington, says that "setting up links was [her] favorite thing."

Lilly, the budding fashionista, is also an entrepreneur; she and a friend Natalie, who also took the class, want to make clothes and sell them online. Lilly's mother encouraged her to take the class and says she will be teaching the girls to sew in the near future.

Other parents wanted to give their daughters insight into their own careers. Nia's mom is a web designer. Shoshanna's mom is a software developer. But Shoshanna doesn't necessarily want to follow in her mother's footsteps. "Maybe a programmer. Maybe an artist or a singer," she said, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.

They might not yet know what they careers they want to pursue when they get older, but for the girls of this GROW workshop, a short introduction to coding has planted a seed that could well grow into a successful career or business venture.

Making Geek 'Chic'
A few blocks away from GROW, the first Get GeekChic workshop drew nearly 40 adult participants to the Sunlight Foundation for a crash course in what cofounder and CEO Josie Keller calls "learning how to learn how to code."

The women, who ranged in age from roughly 20 to 60, came to the workshop for a variety of reasons. Some were academics and researchers who wanted to learn the web side of what they work on, others were creatives who wanted to be able to talk to developers and still others were entrepreneurs working on startups who needed to be able to code to develop their own products and services.

"There are ten-week courses in other cities, but not here...There are a lot of women like me. I built the program that I wanted to learn from."
Keller says she created GeekChic Academy because she saw a gap in the marketplace. "I wanted to learn to code," she explained, "and I wanted an in-person experience. There are ten-week courses in other cities, but not here. So I decided to start something of my own [in D.C.]…. There are a lot of women like me. I built the program that I wanted to learn from."

GeekChic, which launched in April, strives to be a full-stack development academy for women. Women can sign up for a weekend workshop, a two-week bootcamp or a ten-week fellowship, depending on their needs.

Sarah Kelley, a workshop participant, had been teaching herself to code on her own but was drawn to GeekChic for the opportunity to interact with others. "The only other developers I know live thousands of miles away," she says. "Here, I get in-person assistance and I get to listen to other questions."

Ben Bengfort is a software engineer and data scientist and is one of Keller's cofounders. He taught the workshop, which covered a wide range of modern coding skills and languages." The group was amazing," he said while the women worked on learning Django, a web application framework used to build modern websites. "They worked together so well. I don't see that in mostly male groups. I presented a whole lot of information, and what made [the workshop] possible is that they all worked together."

While women coding is hardly an explosion, it certainly is a trend—one that piggybacks on the larger idea of bringing more women and girls into science, technology, engineering and math. "There are a lot of women pushing for more women in STEM, and that would be fantastic," Keller says. "More women in technology is better for tech as a whole. Bringing in different experiences is better for a product."

Keller said that the ultimate goal for the workshop was for each woman to have an "a-ha" moment, when something about coding clicked and made sense for the first time. Easter McCants, a participant with little technical background, quipped, "As long as [they] were holding my hand, I a-ha-ed all day!"

Both DCWW and GeekChic plan to offer additional classes in the coming months. 

Read more articles by Allyson Jacob.

Allyson Jacob is a writer originally hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the Innovation and Job News editor for Elevation DC. Her work has been featured in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati CityBeat. Have a tip about a small business or start-up making waves inside the Beltway? Tell her here.
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