The Active Record By The Starter League

The Starter League, founded in 2011, is a small school in Chicago that teaches Rails, Ruby, HTML/CSS, and User Experience Design. The classes are intensive, three months long, one to three days a week, and taught in person.

Assumptions don’t create change, but you can.

By Caity Moran on April 7, 2015

We recently had our second workshop for people who have never written a line of code. The goal was to demystify web development and get people excited about building web apps. To do this, students built a landing page using HTML, CSS, a text editor and a browser. That night, every student was invigorated with the prospect of learning something new. And the energy was contagious.

As our teaching assistants were buzzing around helping students, I noticed that there were a lot of women in the room. Then I counted, there were two women for every man taking the workshop. That’s huge!

At The Starter League we value diversity*. It creates a unique environment where learning goes beyond the classroom or curriculum and students also learn from their peers’ experiences. We’re always looking for ways to draw a diverse student body. And we’re doing pretty well, 40-55% of our applicants for our classes are women. When it comes to converting applicants into enrolled students, those numbers drop.

So why do less women convert to students? And how do we get more women to convert?

Let’s start with why less women convert to students. I often hear women say they’re intimidated by coding or apprehensive of jumping into the tech scene or start a coding course. I get that. I can’t speak for all women, but I can speak for myself. In both my educational and professional career, I’ve encountered people who made me feel incapable.

I minored in computer science and my classes were predominantly male. In programming classes, we were often paired up for assignments to work through the problem with a partner. On several occasions, I would reach out to my partner about our shared assignment and get a response akin to, “Oh don’t worry about it, I already did our assignment with another group. I figured you were busy, and I wanted to make sure it got done.”

Which left me with two options: don’t do the assignment and fall behind in class. Or take what was supposed to be a group assignment and figure it out on my own. It was frustrating and insulting. I had to work twice as hard just to prove I wanted to be there and could do the work.

Here are a few examples of assumptions people have made about me over the years:

  • When I offered to help troubleshoot the AV issues for an event renting space at 1871. I was told, “I’d feel more comfortable with the AV guy, he will really know what he’s doing.” I was the AV guy.
  • While having a conversation with an older gentleman and one of my college interns, the older gentleman looked at me and said, “Oh I guess I shouldn’t swear in front of you.” If you really feel that way, then please don’t swear in front of my 18 year-old intern either. Otherwise, don’t apologize to me.
  • Can you have you web guy update our logo on your website? I was the web guy.
  • “I guess not all blondes are dumb” then he laughed and said he was joking. Enough said.

I could give you a dozen other examples. Instead, let me share that I've had the honor of knowing and working with so many amazing individuals, both women and men, who have imparted knowledge and believed in me. I focus on those people.

Now, how do we get more women to convert? I think these workshops and events like them are a great start. They provide a lot of value for just three hours of instruction. It's also a much smaller commitment compared to an 11 week class. But just having a workshop isn’t going to convert more women.

We need to use these opportunities to show everyone intimidated by coding that its not a bro’s club. It’s imperative to create and foster a culture that is welcoming and inclusive. You can actively make an effort to be part of the solution, not the problem. We all make assumptions about the people around us. Making statements with these assumptions can alienate and set people up for failure. Not to mention, we’re often wrong. Instead of making assumptions about why people want to learn, what brought them here and what their goals are… ASK them. Get to know them and let them tell you their story. Assumptions don’t bring us any closer, conversations do. Challenge yourself and those around you to be a part of the solution.

*Diversity is about more than gender: age, race, work experience, marital status, education, country of origin, etc. but for the purpose of this post I focused on gender diversity.