Learning how to code in a male-dominated field

Women aren't letting the challenges of the tech industry keep them from pursuing a new career.
Written by Allison Murray, Staff Writer
Multi-ethnic young women working together standing and sitting around a computer
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Learning a new skill -- especially a challenging one like coding -- is difficult enough. But it can be even harder when you're learning it as a woman in a male-dominated field such as the tech industry.

According to last year's FRG Technology Consulting Java and PHP Salary Survey, only one in every 10 developers is a woman. But women are increasingly moving into the tech industry -- sometimes unconventionally -- and learning the skills it takes to create code.

E-learning platforms like Code Institute aim to make it easy to take on the commitment of a new career in coding by letting students learn on their own flexible schedules.

"We work with our students throughout the course from day one to get them used to industry, including formal consultations where they can tell us their starting points, ambitions, and challenges," says Jane Gormley, the director of employer engagement at Code Institute.

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A lot of the success stories come from students who are moms looking to make a career change in the tech industry, Gormley says, with the flexibility of the program allowing them to learn how to code while also prioritizing family and their current job.

However, some things still hold women back from learning to code, such as feeling like they don't know it all, otherwise known as 'imposter syndrome', which women tend to experience more than men. Another thing that often holds women back from switching careers into tech is the lack of hearing about other women doing just that, Gormley says.

"Many women haven't had that experience where loads of their friends are coders, so if they don't get to hear anecdotal stories of what people actually do for work, there's sort of a mysticism around it."

Even with these hesitations, it's important to remember that women have a place in the coding world and even helped build it to what it is today. For example, famous women coders like Grace Murray Hopper made history by being one of the first programmers for the Harvard Mark 1 and developing a compiler that would later be used to create the COBOL programming language. And of course, right back in the 1800s, Ada Lovelace was a pioneer in computer programming, creating applications for the Analytical Engine, which is considered the world's first general-purpose computer.

The women who make up the coding industry today come from all types of backgrounds. Before becoming a tutor and full-stack software developer at Code Institute, Joke Heyndels worked a desk job printing labels for repackaged products, sometimes working on the factory floor due to labor shortages.

"I've always had an affinity for computers, and during a Microsoft Office course in 2007, I proved to myself I was really good at guided digital learning," she said. "I saw an advert for a five-day coding challenge and thought, 'well, I have nothing to lose, let's give it a try'. I loved it and decided to invest in the full course."

Heyndels said she doesn't regret her career change for a second, but that in her own experience, she didn't even think of tech as an option at first.

"Girls get pushed towards other professions in school, so very few go on to study coding," she said. "Growing up in the nineties, learning [coding] at home wasn't an option either, as the one computer in the house was only for my father's use."

For women especially, Gormley adds that getting into the tech industry is about surrounding yourself with the right people and getting support from a mentor or social groups. And most importantly, Heyndels said you have to desire to learn in an ever-changing field. 

"I didn't have any background, either. What matters most in this industry are enthusiasm and a willingness to keep learning," Heyndels said. "Neither of those is exclusive to any gender." 

Read more from this special report: Tech skills - Upgrade your job

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