The World Needs More Geek Girls -- And Here's Where They're Coming From Now

On a recent Tuesday night, members of Hack Manhattan are gathered at the collaborative production space’s studios. Some are working on art and technology projects. Others are cleaning up after the past weekend’s gathering, when more than 100 people took turns playing a mind-controlled game of Pong on a 48-square-foot light-studded board.

Crystal Butler, one of the game’s creators and an active Hack Manhattan member, is wearing a headset that detects her brain’s electrical activities and analyzing computer data. Among the group of technology enthusiasts and hobbyists gathered on this random night at the nonprofit cooperative space, Butler doesn’t seem to be your typical hacker.

For one thing, she’s a she. There are relatively few women who take part in the informal communities called hackerspaces—collaborative meet-ups for people to work on projects that range from programming software to wiring hardware and everything in-between. Hackers of this sort get together to use 3-D printers, laser cutters and glue guns to make things rather than to break into Defense Department computers.

Though she is in the minority, her creative ambitions put asunder any discomfort she might feel working among a throng of dudes. “I come to Hack Manhattan to absorb inspiration and knowledge from others,” she says.

Her background is in fashion and she is merging her design skills with a love of technology to create wearable electronics.

This night, during an open house to show newcomers the space, she begins hooking her wearable electronics to a brainwave-detecting headset, which measures a wearer’s mental concentration. Another member fits an LED-studded belt around her waist. This is all part of an interactive clothing project she’s working on that lights up and displays different patterns based on the wearer’s mood. “Not the best outfit to wear on a first date,” she jokes.

You wouldn’t think it to see her work, but aside from a few classes she took in college 20 years ago, she has little formal background in programming. Instead, she’s been teaching herself and attending hackerspaces, which she enjoys for their collaborative nature.

She’s part of a small group of women who join these creative communities, or create their own.

Creative space for women to make

Some of these female technophile organizations cater to specific demographics, such as Mothership Hackermoms in Berkeley, Calif., or Girls Who Code, an organization working to inspire and equip technology and engineering skills in high-school girls. The employment disparity between men and women in science, technology, engineering and math fields, particularly in leadership positions, has inspired many women to form similar organizations focused on women’s professional development.

Others, like  Girl Develop It, an organization dedicated to women teaching each other computer programming, were formed to “empower women and give them a place to learn software development judgment free,” says co-founder Vanessa Hurst. “As a woman, it can be intimidating to ask questions in an almost entirely male environment – sometimes you feel like you are representing your entire gender.”

This led Hurst and Sara Chipps to create a new environment for women to learn coding. Their two-year-old international organization has nine growing chapters, and has taught basic coding skills to more than 1,000 women through low-cost programming classes. The Girl Develop It classes attract beginners and experienced coders who want to improve their skills.

Christina Salerno sits in a group of 30 women during a recent Girl Develop It class on building computer databases being held in midtown Manhattan. She is no begrudging college student attending the class because she has to; the code for the evening’s class is already glowing on her MacBook screen before the session begins.

She is engaged and excited to expand her fluency in the language of coding.

“I’ve taught myself how to code up to now,” she says. “I’ve come to the Girl Develop It classes to grow my programming skills and to learn more of the formal language.”

Salerno’s introduction to coding was through Myspace. In the pre-Facebook days, Myspace users could jazz up their profiles by searching online for pre-made layout code and pasting it into their profiles. In 2008, Salerno decided to see what tweaking this code would do.

That experience fanned an interest in trying to understand how programs work, which grew into a love for coding. She would eventually become a freelance programmer.

Called up from the farm team

At least one organization sees an opportunity to use informal technology communities like hackerspaces and do-it-yourself, peer-learning groups like Girl Develop It as gateways to get more women into professional engineering fields, which have long suffered a deep gender gap.

Earlier this year, Etsy, the e-commerce site that focuses on homemade products, announced it would provide10 hacker grants for women to take a three-month intensive programming course at New York City’s Hacker School.

“Last September, three out of 96 employees in engineering and operations at Etsy were women, and none of them were managers,” writes Marc Hedlund, Etsy’s vice president of engineering. “We hope this will be the first of many steps to encourage more women into engineering at Etsy and across the industry.”

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Ysabel Yates is a science, technology and environmental reporter. Her work has appeared in Txchnologist and Ecomagination.


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