About two dozen women sat around tables at downtown coworking space OpenWorks for Greenville's inaugural Women Who Code meeting earlier this month. The group is the latest in a network of more than 60 worldwide, from Silicon Valley to Kuala Lumpur, designed to bring women in the computer science industry together for networking and education.
Greenville's Women Who Code represents a wide range of ages and career levels. Some are self-taught. Others are students and alumnae of the Iron Yard, the Greenville-based coding school. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been surrounded by fellow female programmers.
"Going to tech conferences, sometimes I was the only woman in the room, and sometimes very much not welcome," said Holly Goen, an Iron Yard student and owner of Technical Gravy, an IT services company.
The computer science industry is dominated by men. About 75 percent of employees in computer and mathematical science jobs are male, according to a 2014 study by the National Science Foundation. More than half of women in technology jobs leave the industry halfway through their careers, according to a report from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
There is a "leaking pipeline of women in IT" that starts in K-12 education and continues through college and career, said Jason Thatcher, a professor and director of the Social Analytics Institute at Clemson University.
Women Who Code looks to patch that leaking pipeline. One of the organization's goals is to help members develop skills to "raise their profile in the industry." The networking and education opportunities the Greenville chapter will enable that, according to chapter director Pamela Wood Browne.
Conferences and groups for women in the technology industry sometimes don't have many women who actually perform tech-related tasks, Goen said, which sets Women Who Code apart.
"Women Who Code is my first foray in a group for women in programming," Goen said. "At conferences for women in tech, the majority of the women are not actually in tech. They may be in sales for tech or in a supporting role, but the majority of women are not doing tech-related stuff."
Female programmers are in the minority in the workplace.
At Kopis USA, a Greenville computer software firm, two of the 20 employees Adam Drewes manages are women. When potential employees come in for interviews at the company, the same proportion is reflected.
The female employees have led some of the company's major projects, Drewes said, but they've gotten used to working in a male-dominated environment.
Women Who Code is a space for female programmers to meet and find support outside of the often male-dominated workplaces they are in, Thatcher said.
"Groups like Women Who Code are really helpful because they provide a support group that women don't find at work," Thatcher said.
Women also find those disparate ratios in computer science education. Thatcher, who teaches business and computer science classes, said many of his talented female business students decline to go into IT. Goen is one of two women in a 14-person Iron Yard cohort, or class. Drewes said the 10-to-one ratio of men to women at work was one he also saw as a college student.
There are many theories about why women enter computer science at rates much lower than men, but researchers "know it starts with K-12" education, Thatcher said. By the time women interested in programming and IT get to college, they face "male cultures that are very aggressive, not anti-women but ... not friendly to women," Thatcher said.
When women reach the professional level and find themselves to be one of few, "they feel isolated," Thatcher said.
Some organizations, like the Iron Yard, make an effort to recruit women and others underrepresented in the technology industry. The coding school offers diversity scholarships of $1,000 that can be awarded to women, people of color, military personnel or people with disabilities. The tuition for the Iron Yard's full-time immersive courses is $12,000 in the U.S.
"The more voices we have represented both in the tech community and in our classrooms, the stronger the experience will be for everyone," said Eric Dodds, the Iron Yard's chief marketing officer.
Goen chose to attend the Iron Yard over an all-female coding school because the mixed-gender group was a more realistic microcosm of the programming world.
"I may have been more comfortable from the beginning [with all women], but that’s not reality," Goen said. "That’s not how things are going to work out."
Browne, the Greenville Women Who Code director, hopes the group will help women be more confident in breaking into male-dominated spaces.
"I don't want to just create a bubble of women," Browne said at the group's first meeting. "I want us to invade the spaces dominated by men."
Find Women Who Code's events at http://www.meetup.com/Women-Who-Code-Greenville/. The next event is a Nov. 7 hack night at 15 Brendan Way, Suite 140 in Greenville.