If we want to get more women into tech we need to stop telling them to learn to code

Women at computer

The other day I put out a call out for women technologists in Adelaide to help out with a project I am currently working on at MOD. I was seeking advanced programmers (specifically for machine learning and AI projects), animators and game designers.

I put the call out because I was concerned about diversity and because in 15 or so meetings with a range of technology companies I had rarely seen a single women at the table.

I got a smaller response than I expected. A few women in digital, in recruiting and in web development, database management and programming.

And then I started to get a niggle that maybe I was going about this all wrong.

You see the tables of men* I had met with, often two or three from a company, were not always developers or engineers. They also included strategists, experience designers, illustrators, founders, managing directors, consultants and business development professionals. Why then, was I trying to recruit women through such a narrow frame?

The messages we send

I’m not for a minute suggesting that the emphasis on getting women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects or teaching them to code is not worthwhile and much needed (diversity in representation across all disciplines is critical). I do wonder though if, in emphasising these as primary solutions in our conversations about women in tech, we are actually throwing more barriers in front of people?

Consider the messages that these sort of conversations might send to women and girls who can’t code:

‘You don’t have a place in tech’

‘Your skills are not valued’

‘You have to start back at the beginning’

‘If you want to be here, you have to be like us’

These are really problematic messages to send to young women. They are potentially even worse ones to send to women who have spent many years already in the workforce, have accumulated significant expertise, skills and experience and who now want to build a business, work in tech or are having digital and technology transformation added to their increasing responsibilities.

I have a hunch that these are also slightly different messages to the ones men interested in entrepreneurship, startup and digital careers receive. There are very few coding workshops pitched at men wanting to ‘get into tech’. We just don’t frame it that way. Instead we seem more ready to encourage them to use their business nous, their sales or marketing skills or their experience building businesses to get involved regardless of experience. This is probably part of a broader problem around the language we tend to use that often sees women told they need to ‘develop’ while men are encouraged or where women are judged differently when presenting to investors.


Square pegs, round holes

Earlier this week I had a conversation in a new entrepreneur group (props to Moira Deslandes for creating Chooks SA) about this article. What struck me most about the author’s argument was both her alienation from the dominant conversation as well as what appeared to be a desperate need to fit in with a framework for entrepreneurship (specifically ‘lean startup’) that did not align in any way, and by her own admission, with her business goals. She was trying to make herself fit into a hole that was not her shape. It occurred to me that this was such a waste of her passion, energy and time. All things she should be directing to her business.

We need to stop doing this.

We need to think beyond trying to make women (and everyone else who is currently not adequately represented) fit in established frames and start challenging them instead. We need to rethink them so we celebrate and make use of the skills and experience people already have rather than forcing them to ditch these skills in favour of new ones just to fit in.


Caring less about technology and more about the problems we want to solve

My position has always been that technology is an enabler for humans to do great things. Having the vision for what those things are, working out how to get there, building relationships, communicating the idea, managing teams to make it happen and overseeing delivery have nothing to do with being able to code. These areas are all critical spaces that are up for grabs.

I can’t code. I don’t have a computer science degree and I am definitely not an engineer. Instead I have an Honours degree in Politics and a Masters in Journalism. I mostly consider myself an experience designer, a strategist and a communicator. I also consider myself as someone who uses technology to solve problems.

If I had taken on board suggestions that I needed to learn to code (and yes, I even wasted some time trying to teach myself) I wouldn’t have had the time to lobby, in my last role, for digital transformation to be accepted as a critical business gap. I wouldn’t have established SA Water’s first digital team from scratch and then led that team to both launch one of the first digital strategies for the South Australian government and a ten-year, multi-million dollar program to apply technology to transform online services, give customers what they were crying out for, improve access, inclusion and experience in the process. This is an achievement I remain very proud of.


Changing the conversation

There are many more women I know of in Adelaide and beyond who have even more than this to give. We should be creating every opportunity for them to take part -here’s just some of the ways we could change how we approach the conversation about tech:

We could be enabling women who are not coders to find technical co-founders. We can make this easier and create space for them to focus their energy on what they know best and still get the opportunity to bring their ideas to life (and build amazing businesses and social enterprises in the process).

We can change the language we use to talk about tech, see it as the enabler it is and start to acknowledge what it truly takes to build digital businesses, services, products and projects. This is a diverse range of skills including strategy, marketing and communication, stakeholder management, business development, human resources, psychology, designers, creativity and artistry, problem solving, design and psychology (to name just a few!).

We can highlight women from non-STEM backgrounds who now work in tech rather than limiting our role models to those that chose this path at a young age. My role models are those that have carved out a space for themselves against the odds and have shown me what is possible.

We can break down silos and create opportunities for more collaboration and connection across all disciplines.

We can help companies find talented women who can contribute their skills and experience across diverse roles so that the next time we sit down to have a meeting there are both men and women at the table.

We can stop telling women they need to learn to code and start providing ways for them to see how their existing skills are very much needed in tech. We can help them find avenues to get involved without asking them to pack their bags and go back to the start.

(*Note, this is not a criticism of these businesses. I have met many lovely, talented people who I really hope to be able to work with soon)

What do you think – are we having the right conversation and creating the right opportunities for women to get involved? What are other things we could be doing?
I’d also love to hear about any programs or initiatives that are striving to get more women into tech in different ways. Let me know in the comments below!


2 thoughts on “If we want to get more women into tech we need to stop telling them to learn to code

  1. Hi Anika!

    I’m co-organising the RLadies Adelaide group with Marija Dmitrijeva.

    After our first couple of talks, we’ve noticed that separating talks from workshops might be isolating the experienced coders from those with interest and parallel knowledge, but little coding experience. We’ve decided to change the format to combine talks with an interactive example piece of code to try to engage people in a more complete way.

    We’re hoping it will give people insight into the many different ways they could be part of code development, not necessarily as a dev themselves.

    Whereabouts did you post about MOD projects? I must have missed it. Sounds like a great initiative!


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