code like a girl is improving computer science’s gender divide

Ally Watson’s Melbourne based initiative is uniting young women who love technology and demonstrating how creative and dynamic coding can be.

by Rachel Wilson
29 July 2015, 3:00am

Ally Watson knows that when you think about coders you think about spotty college boys frowning seriously into their computer screens. Or worse, Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg urging his hackers to take a shot of vodka for every line of code they write.

The Glasgow native believes the creative expression offered through coding is seriously undersold. In response to the misplaced preconceptions, she created Code Like A Girl. The project is a way to grow an Australian based network of smart women supporting one another in an industry classically dominated by men.

Her aims are twofold: firstly she hopes to provide more information around the industry, but also develop a community of women to fracture the sense of intimidation around IT. Ally commented that she's concerned over how many women skip tech meetups because they're put off by the lack of other female attendees. "It's intimidating. The first meetup I ever went to, I dragged my sister along and she hated me for it. I didn't want to go alone, but I didn't want to miss out."

Long term, she believes having a more visible female presence in the IT world will remedy the industries passive culture of sexism. We caught up with her after the Code Like A Girl's launch to talk creativity, Karlie Kloss, and computer science.

Hey Ally! Tell me a little bit about how you got into coding.
I had an unconventional route in. I did well at school but decided I wanted to go to art school instead of uni. After two years of getting rejected, though, I looked into the clearing courses at Glasgow University. I saw software engineering and thought it sounded interesting. Although I hadn't done computing at school, I knew I was good with maths and computers - my MySpace page was the envy of all my friends - and thought my creative side might work in my favour.

Does it concern you that women are getting into the industry by accident rather than being encouraged to do so?
Definitely and it's why I'm so passionate about doing this. Because it was an accident, I don't want other girls not to be exposed to the industry the way I was. In high school you know your core skills, but no one shows you what a combination of all those things look like. If you consider yourself good at anything like psychology, art or maths, you'll probably be awesome at computer science. That's why I'd love Code Like A Girl to eventually get bigger than the meetups. I'd love to inspire other girls to get into the industry.

What can we expect from Code Like A Girl?
It's a series of monthly meetups in Melbourne for women who code, want to code, or are still on the fence! We're still playing around with formats—our launch was a panel discussion but we've also got plans for workshops, afternoon tea, brunches etc. What's great is that it's all females: we can play with so many ideas that are relevant to us and focus on what we, as women, enjoy. One idea I'm really excited about is a seminar on wearable tech, where we're planning to invite some women from the fashion industry. The Apple Watch didn't even have a menstrual app, so think about a room full of women talking tech and fashion! That can only be a good thing.

Coming from Scotland, do you think Australia is lagging behind the UK and US with initiatives encouraging women to get in and stay in the industry?
Australia's funny. Coding's not a priority for the current government like it is everywhere else in the world and that's worrying. The country doesn't have many skilled workers in the field anyway and in the next decade it's predicted there will be 1 million more computer science jobs. If Australia doesn't make coding a priority, their next generation of coders aren't going to be ready.

On top of that, the UK, US and Europe are leading on tech initiatives for women. Melbourne has a few - like the Geek Girl Academy for example - but there's definitely more to be done. Some colleges in America have got their enrolments for computer science up to 44 percent women - that's the dream, getting 50:50 with men and women. I think Australian unis could follow that lead and change things up because there's clearly an issue with the way it's running now.

Finally, I have to ask: what do you think of Karlie Kloss ditching Victoria's Secret for coding school?
I think people like Karlie Kloss are amazing. We need figures like her because there's an unconscious bias. Parents give their sons computer games while girls are growing up reading fashion magazines. We have to go with that, we have to dive into pop culture and make the industry cool. There's more media representation of the industry now but it still focuses on men— Silicon Valley, for example—and I just hope that isn't scaring girls off. Karlie Kloss has thousands of followers and she's potentially changed many, many girls' lives. The best thing about computer science is the opportunities: you're creating something from nothing and the places you can go with it is unreal. 


Text by Rachel Wilson

ally watson
code like a girl