Geek Chicks: PyLadies, a Gang of Female Computer Programmers
Katharine Jarmul, PyLady
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.
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
"I said very frankly, 'Well, maybe we should stop complaining about it and do something,' " Jarmul remembers.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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