Using RailsBridge to get women coders into the room
“The Ruby community tends to be really welcoming in and of itself, and then Railsbridge takes that and puts an anti-sexist and pro-diversity spin on it.”
The official account of the RailsBridge origin story tells of founders Sarah Mei and Sarah Allen deciding to host a workshop in 2009 for women who want to learn to use Ruby on Rails. Their goal was to “move the needle” of gender balance in the San Francisco Rails community from the embarrassingly skewed ratio of 97% men and 3% women to a more equitable ratio. The event sold out within 24 hours. The website comments “It turned out every speculation of “Well, maybe there aren’t more women in programming because they just aren’t interested” was 100% rubbish (as we all knew), and there has been an insatiable appetite for education and community ever since that first workshop.” A year later, in 2010, Sarah Mei gave a talk about successfully “moving the needle” from 3% women to 18% women and mused about how to get that ratio to a 50/50 balance.
I’ve been involved with the Ruby Users of Minnesota (aka “RUM”) since 2006 and I’ve been teaching people how to use Rails since 2010. For most of that time, sadly, the RUM meetings and gatherings of coders tended to match the 2009 numbers cited by the RailsBridge website – 3% women, 97% men. That needle started to move when the first RailsBridge workshop happened here in 2012 as part of the 2012 JRubyConf. Like many RailsBridge events, the workshop sold out almost immediately, as did the second Minneapolis RailsBridge workshop 6 months later. The tone of response from established local male hackers was one of enthusiasm that this was finally happening in our city and encouragement for it to continue. This support was accompanied by a glimmer of pride about the fact that at the code camp for kids, which also happened as part of JRubyConf, 45% of the attendees were girls. I heard multiple accounts claiming that a visible contingent of the parents in the room were hacker guys who want their daughters to know how to sling code.
I’m lucky to be connected with a community where people simply won’t tolerate the idea that your gender somehow affects your capacity to excel as an engineer. My male peers around here always seemed to assume that the tech industry’s gender imbalance is simply an oddity of cultural patterns, an anomaly that could easily change over time. However, they also seemed resigned to the idea that a software engineer’s lot in life is to spend your days working in a monoculture of smart dudes. In other words, most of the software engineers I know have not maintained a conscious bias favoring male engineers, but they also have not seen their field’s gender imbalance as a problem that needs to be fixed, nor have they seen it necessary to change the culture of their workplaces or to increase inclusiveness in the environments where skill-sharing occurs. Thankfully there are some wonderful and influential exceptions to this rule, but as a whole, that’s the behavior I’ve witnessed.
There’s nothing gender-specific about the RailsBridge curriculum; they’re just well-designed workshops.
In my own work environment, which mainly involves collaborating with software development groups at libraries, the gender balance of teams tends to be around 20%-30% women. If you count only the coders, the number is closer to 18%. At the HydraCamp training events I’ve run, which reflect this gender ratio, we started using the RailsBridge curriculum in 2013 because it’s a really well structured introduction to Ruby on Rails. Pedagogically, the RailsBridge curriculum is a great set of teaching materials and, importantly, people keep them up to date as the Rails framework evolves. This makes those curriculum materials extremely useful. We even overhauled the core Hydra tutorials to reflect the RailsBridge style.
There’s nothing gender-specific about the RailsBridge curriculum; they’re just well-designed workshops. So what is it about RailsBridge that helps push the needle of diversity in the Rails community?
I think it’s about safe space. Simply by declaring a training event as being explicitly aimed at increasing diversity, it provides a promise that you won’t be treated like a three headed monster when you show up and that you will be neither judged, attacked, alienated nor neglected by the instructors and the other students. It assures participants that they can arrive with only a laptop and the desire to learn, and they can expect to leave with new skills, a sense of empowerment and a sense of inclusion.
When we started kicking around the idea of doing a RailsBridge-based workshop* as part of the LTG Summit, I admitted to my collaborators that I’ve taught the curriculum numerous times within HydraCamp events, but never taught it as an explicit RailsBridge event. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what, if anything, I will do differently in leading the workshop at ER&L. At the moment, I’m pretty sure I won’t change anything other than providing a bit of background and history about RailsBridge at the beginning of the day. Can you think of anything else that should be done differently from a regular training workshop?
* Note: The workshop at ER&L is not technically a RailsBridge workshop because we are charging $25 to attendees. We are, however, using the RailsBridge curriculum and aspiring to create the same learning environment that a RailsBridge workshop would offer.