Cracking the Gender Code

written by Kelly Gu
photos by Miriam Bribiesca & Austin Yu

For some, a black screen on their laptops is a form of communication.

Their fingers fly across the keyboard as they compile a series of blue, green and red letters and numbers, stacking one statement on top of the other, until they've managed to bridge the language barrier between human and machine. But one small error – an additional space, comma or colon – could render it gibberish.

As the tech industry continues to expand and boast promising job opportunities, coding – a skill formerly perceived to be known only by an exclusive club of hackers and programmers – is now becoming a second language.

But as booming tech companies draw immense crowds of prospective employees, a disparity has also begun to emerge.

According to data published by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, only 25 percent of professional computing occupations in the U.S. workforce were held by women in 2015.

Google’s 2015 diversity report stated that only 18 percent of its technical jobs are held by women, while Facebook’s 2015 diversity report reported that women in the company hold 16 percent of its technical jobs.

With the gender gap in tech occupations already a prime topic for debate, it would seem that the push for diversity would encourage women to pursue computer science in schools and universities across the country. In actuality, the percentage of women who received bachelor’s degrees in computer science at major research universities dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 15 percent in 2014, according to NCWIT.

This disparity is troubling to women and tech companies alike, including Intel, where CEO Brian Krzanich described diversity as fundamental for innovation. Without diversity in both gender and ethnicity, homogeneous populations amount to a one-sided conversation.

In highly populated cities like Los Angeles, resistance against the gender gap is taking form, both on college campuses and in the workplace.

Eight months ago, Apurva Panse, a second-year computer science student, took a flight to Houston where thousands of female technologists gathered from all corners of the world for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

As one of the first programmers in computer history, former U.S. Navy Admiral Grace Hopper continues to inspire waves of women to close the gender gap. Since attending the conference, Panse said she has resolved to speak up and empower girls to enter the tech industry.

“The goal is to eliminate the frat culture of technology,” Panse said. “I was wondering if my ignorance was part of the problem. If I were just to be scared and let that fear deter me, I would not be part of the solution.”

Drawn to the dynamic nature and instant gratification of coding, Panse said she switched from economics to computer science shortly after her first quarter at UCLA.

“The unlimited ways you can get involved in computer science is an indication of its creativity. It can be used in almost all student organizations on campus, and it can go where you want it to go,” Panse said.

In February, Panse and her team developed a virtual reality application to combat the fear of public speaking, and took home awards for "best hack a team should keep building post-TreeHacks" and "most polished" at TreeHacks, a Stanford University hackathon. Panse also joined Daily Bruin Developers this year to work on the newspaper’s website design.

However, Panse said the creativity that computer science inspires is often overshadowed by the glaring lack of diversity in the field.

“Computer science classrooms can be really isolating,” Panse said. “There’s not a lot of diversity in computer science at UCLA, both genderwise and ethnically.”

According to a self-review report by the UCLA computer science department, 111 undergraduate students came in as computer science and computer science and engineering students in the fall of 2014. Twenty, or about 18 percent, were women.

“It wasn’t other people’s perception – it was my own,” Panse said. “My own perception made me feel isolated. I don’t see anyone in this room that looks like me and connects with me.”

Panse said her classmates are mostly white or Asian males, and many of them have been coding for years.

“Many of (my classmates) have been coding for so long,” Panse said. “It was hard for me to feel like I was at their level.”

Seeking a support system, Panse joined the UCLA Association for Computing Machinery in the winter of her first year, and later assumed the position of community outreach for the Association for Computing Machinery – Women.

Sharon Grewal, a third-year computer science student and next year’s ACM-W president, had no knowledge or background in computer science until stepping on campus.

“I had no opportunity to learn how to code in high school,” Grewal said. “A lot of people back home were surprised when I said I was studying computer science, and it was a very new environment for me.”

Grewal said that she was inspired by the problem-solving aspect of computer science, but felt out of place in discussion sections where her peers would ask advanced questions.

“I felt really unsure if I was supposed to be there,” Grewal said. “And I felt like asking my questions wouldn’t be helpful for everyone else.”

David Smallberg, a lecturer in the computer science department, teaches two of the introductory computer science courses at UCLA.

“I remember in the early 1980s, personal computers were marketed for boys,” Smallberg said. “If there ever was a personal computer in the household, it was in the boy’s room. There became a perception that it was a male thing, not a female thing.”

Smallberg said that women currently comprise about 20 percent of his classes.

“The fact is you’re all solving problems,” Smallberg said. “There’s no difference performancewise, but there’s a difference confidencewise.”

This difference in confidence is thought to be an effect of the impostor syndrome, a behavioral pattern studied in the 1970s by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. The study described interviews with more than 150 women who were highly successful in their fields, and found that these women, despite being perfectly capable in terms of their career, were often more susceptible to the feeling of self-doubt than men were. They reported a lack of an inner sense of success and often felt they needed to work twice as hard to catch up to their male counterparts. Within a greatly underrepresented community like computer science, those feelings may be exacerbated.

Impostor syndrome or not, both Grewal and Panse said they found female mentors and a passion for teaching through ACM-W.

“I teach because I want to make (computer science) more accessible,” Grewal said. “A lot of my North Campus and female friends think it’s a subject they would never understand, but it’s only difficult because they haven’t been taught how to approach it yet.”

Grewal said she hopes to provide an ACM-W equivalent for the graduate programs, where the gender gap is even more visible. Grewal also said she heavily believes in male allies.

“It’s not just women for women – everyone should be promoting women in tech,” Grewal said. “Software in general was meant for the world. If tech companies want to reflect that, both men and women need to make sure the people making the software are as diverse as the world is.”

As part of her own fight against the lack of diversity in the classroom, Panse teaches coding to high schoolers at Santa Monica High School every other week, middle schoolers at The Coding School every Friday morning and younger girls at Girls Who Code every Thursday afternoon.

“I believe it’s a big disservice to students nationwide that computer science isn’t taught in the classroom,” Panse said. “If we aren’t teaching all young kids how to code, they’re missing this giant, technical skill, and girls won’t feel like they belong when they do decide to pursue (computer science).”

On a Thursday afternoon, Auden Koetters, a sixth-grade student at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, stood at the whiteboard in a classroom, carefully writing out “If choice == beach ... ” while Panse explained the concepts behind the code.

Seven other girls sat at their desktop computers, their eyes following the long list of coding tips as they scrolled for an answer. It was after-school hours, and their voices echoed in the empty halls. A poster hung at the front of the computer lab read “Girls Who Code,” the letters surrounded by student names scribbled in different colors.

Tsering Wolfe, a seventh-grade student at Lincoln Middle School, said her ability to fix computer problems for her dad prompted her to join Girls Who Code.

“I talked to my dad about it, and he wanted me to learn,” Tsering said. “I like problem solving, and I want to major in computer science.”

Tsering and the other girls use Codesters, an online program that teaches Python, a programming language, through individual projects and simulations.

Auden returned to her seat and continued to type, instructing a penguin to jump on her screen.

“I’ve been around guys my whole life, and I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do,” said Auden, who has two older brothers. “I really like digital design, and I want to become either an architect or a genetic mutation scientist.”

Katherine Furlong, a sixth-grade student at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica, raised her hand to ask about the loop function she was using.

“I found out I have a passion for building and designing in fourth grade,” Katherine said. “I want to help build and code life-saving robots that can be used in emergency situations.”

Boasting confidence and enthusiasm, most of the girls had interests in technology and dreams of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology long before their coding classes began.

Others were more reluctant in the beginning.

“At first, I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t know anyone who’s a computer science major and a girl,” said Summer Bennett Stein, a sixth-grade student at John Adams Middle School. “But Apurva was the first one and she’s teaching us how to build websites, which can be really useful when I become a lawyer.”

Seeing the positive impact she has on these girls, Panse said she hopes to teach as a career and eventually work at an education tech company, such as Khan Academy, or become a professor in computer science.

“I like to emphasize that whatever a computer does, it’s because of you,” said Panse, after explaining how it was not uncommon for people to think she was kidding when she showed them a new app she created. “It’s about showing the girls how creative they can be, and then they realize that they did it themselves.”

Jordyn Feldman, a sixth-grade student at Lincoln Middle School, takes this creativity in coding to her school’s robotics team.

“There are actually more girls than guys in robotics club,” said Jordyn, looking up from underneath a “Star Wars” BB-8 cap. “I sometimes work on the Wallaby, which stores all of our code and tells the robot what to do.”

In her club, Jordyn helps fix the JavaScript code that commands a lifter to perform certain tasks for an upcoming competition centered around the robotics in the movie “The Martian.”

Ireland Neville, an eighth-grade student on the robotics team, works with Jordyn to develop the code and fix any bugs.

“Coding classes here still have a majority of guys,” Ireland said. “But when you can help each other program something to life, I don’t see why gender matters.”

Programs like Girls Who Code are relatively new, founded in the 2010s and provided only for those under the age of 18.

“I want to use 3-D printing as a software engineer,” said Kennedy Brown, a sixth-grade student at Lincoln Middle School. “And in the future, I hope there will be more girls.”

With diversity requirements and policies popping up across the country, many are hoping exactly that in the future. However, only 17 miles from Lincoln Middle School, in a small, open workspace tucked away in downtown Little Tokyo, adult women are already changing the game.

Natalie MacLees, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Girl Develop It, stood at the front of the room with her laptop, pointing to the screen displaying her string of code and explaining how to fetch a video using JavaScript Object Notation, a data interchange format.

The national organization Girl Develop It began as a class in New York City, aiming to encourage women to learn coding and help them enter the tech industry equipped with the skills they need. The one-time class soon expanded to multiple chapters across the country. The chapter in Los Angeles was founded in January 2014 and currently has about 1,900 active members.

Originally an environmental science student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, MacLees started building websites as a hobby during her last year of college.

“The web in 1996 was not much of a competition,” MacLees said with a laugh. “I just thought it was fun, like a huge puzzle.”

After picking up a part-time job at a shoe store, MacLees built a website for the store. She coded without charge and helped friends and family with their businesses.

“It didn’t occur to me for a while that I should build websites for a career,” MacLees said. “I always thought I wasn’t good enough yet.”

MacLees said she finally overcame her own doubt when she realized she could outcode a friend who was employed at a startup.

MacLees went on to build the web application that organized all the contractors working at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. She also worked on website development for PlayStation and e-book projects at Sony.

Four years ago, MacLees decided she had waited long enough to take the leap into self-employment.

“I’m just tired of being the only woman in the team or even the entire company,” MacLees said. “Which has been the case at every job I’ve had.”

Now, she helps teach accountants, entrepreneurs, pastry chefs, administrative assistants and many others how to code and take their skills into their respective workplaces.

MacLees said she aims to create an environment where they won’t be the only women in the room.

In a downtown Los Angeles mentoring workshop led by MacLees, a diverse group of women of different ethnicities and ages were scattered on chairs and couches, recounting their struggles with entering the coding world.

“If there are 12 or 13 other women in the room, you aren’t afraid to ask questions anymore,” MacLees said. “Lessons are more productive and people get their answers.”

As the women split into mentoring groups, some women said they were looking to build their company an application or website. A few said they were looking to start their own companies, while others said they wanted to start over with a new career in technology.

“Coding tutorials online assume a baseline knowledge, and a lot of people don’t have that,” MacLees said. “They really struggle to figure out where to start, so I want to take people who have never written code before and get them in front of a computer.”

Girl Develop It holds workshops every week to teach different coding languages, such as HTML and JavaScript, to all those who are interested. Two mentors – professionals who attend the workshops and classes to give advice to novices – are normally present with MacLees.

“There are a ton of programs teaching girls and teens to code, which is amazing,” MacLees said. “But we don’t want to leave out everyone else. Those programs didn’t exist when these women were in high school, and we want to effect change in the tech industry now.”

MacLees said her own trek to her position as a web developer has not been the smoothest.

“I feel like almost every woman working in tech has at least one story where she has to put up with something ridiculous,” MacLees said. “It might completely turn (her) away from it.”

MacLees’ own story ended with her and another woman losing their jobs based on a report by one employee stating that he did not like working with women, MacLees said.

MacLees said this kind of extreme experience tends to be rare, however.

“For most women, it’s more like getting 10,000 paper cuts,” said MacLees, referring to the microaggressions – actions that are subtly harmful to members of a marginalized group – that she has faced throughout her tech career. “There might not be something big and overt, but (it may be) a lot of little backhanded compliments.”

These “paper cuts” can start wearing people down, MacLees said, as girls are constantly asked to prove themselves. MacLees said men at conferences have asked her in disbelief if she wrote a certain piece of code, or if she was there with her boyfriend.

MacLees currently teaches HTML, CSS and JavaScript. She said she also plans on learning Ruby and Python.

“I have a really stubborn personality, and there’s nothing more encouraging than people telling me I can’t,” MacLees said.

Since Girl Develop It aims to be gender inclusive, a few men also show up at the JavaScript classes Saturdays.

Mark Coston, a previous Flash programmer, heard about the program through a networking group called Learn to Code LA.

“My work went away when Flash went obsolete,” Coston said. “I want to rehabilitate my skills to stay in the field.”

Coston said he joined the tech industry in the late 1990s, and noticed the continuing underrepresentation of women as well as black and Latina/o coders.

“People are starting to wonder why certain groups aren’t doing certain jobs,” Coston said. “It shouldn’t be weird that I’m a black coder. Just like there shouldn’t need to be a Girl Develop It, but I’m glad there is.”

Coston said there tends to be an ego battle among guys when they get together to code, creating an environment that can be hard to learn in.

“A lot of my students say, ‘I don’t know enough, I’m not good enough yet, I have to keep learning before I can even apply for a job,’ and so on,” MacLees said. “It’s not that your skill isn’t there – it’s that the confidence in your skill isn’t there.”

MacLees said that although the impostor syndrome may be real, the reason for it is not.

“Let’s stop asking if she’s there with her boyfriend at conferences,” MacLees said. “And start asking what language she codes in instead.”