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Geek Chicks: PyLadies, a Gang of Female Computer Programmers

Katharine Jarmul, PyLady
Katharine Jarmul, PyLady
Nanette Gonzales

It's not

that the PyLadies are intimidated by the men who dominate computer

programmer events and workshops. It's just that they got tired of

feeling like outsiders.

Katharine Jarmul, 29, remembers the day

they first identified the problem. She and three other women found

themselves chatting in a circle at a meet-up in March last year. There

were 30 or 40 people there, all discussing Django, a website framework

built on the Python programming language. But, looking around the room,

Jarmul realized that their little circle contained the only female

programmers there. The few other women in attendance were recruiters or

product managers, not the people who actually write code.

"We felt like anomalies," Jarmul recalls.

The

women felt the difference most keenly during breaks, when they couldn't

join in the inside jokes and casual conversations into which their male

colleagues seemed to fall so easily. In a profession so dependent on

teamwork and learning new technology, being part of the community is not

just a matter of feeling comfortable. It's essential to being

competitive.

"I said very frankly, 'Well, maybe we should stop complaining about it and do something,' " Jarmul remembers.

So

the four women, along with two others, met a few weeks later at

Jarmul's house for spaghetti and wine and began planning. The group's

first event was a daylong introduction to Python at KPCC's Crawford

Family Forum in Pasadena. Only women could register, although each could

bring one male or female guest. The workshop's demographics proved a

reversal of most events of its kind: 25 women and two men.

Fast-forward

eight months to the last Saturday in January, and the PyLadies are

holding a Django event in an office complex in Santa Monica. About 25

people drink coffee and munch on bagels before Jarmul starts the event,

with an even split between PyGents and PyLadies, only this time there

was no quota system at work.

One of the men in attendance, Robert

Obreczarek, a programmer from Mar Vista, says most programmers don't

think about gender. "It makes no difference to me [if you're a man or

woman] if you know your shit," he says. But, he admits, he had never

seen so many women at a meeting of programmers.

Jarmul, vice

president of PyLadies, steps to the center front of the room. She has

curly blond hair and is wearing wide, silver hoop earrings and a baby

blue fitted "Djansta" T-shirt, tattoos peeking out below the sleeves --

not your stereotypical programmer look. "Python, especially Django, is

something anyone can do," she tells the group. "You don't need

computer-science schooling."

And that's important considering how

few women actually study the subject. Jarmul herself studied political

science, then education and journalism, but began to teach herself

programming while working on the websites of The Washington Post and later USA Today.

PyLadies president Christine Cheung, who graduated from UC Riverside in

2007 with a degree in computer science, was one of just two women in

her 54-student graduating class. (Both Cheung and Jarmul now work for

startup companies in the Los Angeles area.)

The Computing Research

Association's most recent survey shows that in 2010, just 13.4 percent

of degrees in computer science and computer engineering in the United

States and Canada were awarded to women.

Still, Cheung, 27, says

the organization is not about excluding men. It's about including women.

She got involved with PyLadies because she loves the Python programming

language (which was named after Monty Python, she explains). Also, she

wanted to feel like a member of a community.

 

Most programmers have

loved computers since they were young -- learning how to be little

hackers and coders with their buddies while playing video games. Girls,

however geeky, aren't always invited into those circles. Until PyLadies,

Cheung didn't realize there were enough women programmers to form a

group of Python developers.

The PyLadies, who recently filed

papers to gain nonprofit status, hope to build a broader organization in

the next five years. In addition to events and workshops, they would

like to hold training sessions for kids and create a scholarship

program.

At the January Django training, Jarmul encourages

attendees to ask questions and call on volunteer mentors for help:

"Don't get lost. This isn't a place to get lost."

And the coding

begins, acronyms and computer commands flying. While Jarmul goes through

slides, a low rumble of chatter permeates the room as people help each

other through the tutorial on their own laptops. After about an hour,

everyone in the group has built a basic website and can begin learning

how to manipulate their Django frameworks.

Grant Viklund, who is

married to board member Sophia Viklund and serves as a volunteer mentor,

says PyLadies matters not because its members are women but because

getting more people into programming is a good thing overall.

"Open-source development is basically a numbers game," he says. "The more people who work on something, the better."

Still,

if you ask Viklund, 37, to conjure up an imaginary computer programmer,

he admits that he sees "a big, fat guy with a beard, who might smell" --

the kind of "classic Linux nerd" who might have trouble socializing but

who loved computers long before geek became chic.

Jarmul,

however, has been liberated of that stereotype. If you ask her what she

sees, she'll tell you that she imagines the 2010 Computer Engineer

Barbie, who sports pink glasses and a binary code-laden shirt and

carries a pink laptop and a smartphone with a Bluetooth headset.

Jarmul

actually asked her mother for the doll for her birthday last week. Her

mom, though, said she's going to buy the doll for Jarmul's 2-year-old

niece instead, "so she can look up to her auntie."

Follow @angshah and, for more art news, follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter and on Facebook. You can read more of Angilee Shah's writing at angileeshah.com.


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