May 31, 2014

Digital Corridor Hosts Women In Tech Event

Charlotte Shea, Contributor  /  Charleston Digital Corridor

This week marked another first for the Charleston Digital Corridor – a Women in Tech event. Carolyn Finch, the Digital Corridor's Program Manager partnered with Tonya Davis, an Instructor of Network Systems Management at Trident Technical College to facilitate a conversation between women in the field. According to National Center for Women & Information Technology the number of women with computer science degrees peaked in 1987 at 37 percent and has been in steady decline since. Information Technology, however, continues to be among the ten fastest growing fields, and over 50 percent of women in the field leave it.

When Finch considered launching the Women in Tech group for Charleston she wasn't sure there would be much interest. Last night's event sold out in a matter of days. "It shows there's a need for women to have this conversation in the community." As Charleston's tech community grows, these groups are popping up all around Charleston. This March, Trident Tech had its first Women in Tech group. College of Charleston's Women in Computing chapter just finished its first academic year and the Charleston Women Who Code chapter began this month with two events at the Iron Yard. Next month PokitDok will host the first PyLadies event.

These events aren't about workplace inequality but instead about creating a "you can do it" environment for women considering technology careers. It isn't an issue of the workplace but one of the classroom. Women have historically been pushed into humanities studies over STEM, but our children are more familiar with electronic devices than we are. Second-career women are getting into the field, and the Women in Tech groups are becoming prominent. Programs like the Charleston Digital Corridor's CODECamp, which teaches a variety of programming and web development skills are seeing a better male to female ratio. In its second year 33 percent of CODECamp students are women and that number is expected to keep rising.

Many of the Women in Tech panelists are involved in education and outreach because of their desire to get women involved. The panelists at last night's event are highly skilled, well paid professionals who have flexible schedules that support their personal lives. Yet they were once the sole female in the computer science classroom, and may still be the only woman in the office.

Valerie Sessions, a SPAWAR developer and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Charleston Southern University, is your typical second-shifter who leaves work early to get the kids, and is back at after bedtime. "If you get easily bored it's the best field in the world," Sessions said. There are always new technologies to learn and new problems to solve. Amanda Hodges of Zubie said, "I do it for the high," of solving the problem. In her previous position at SPARC, Hodges was selected after only a few months there to organize their first Hackathon, which has become an annual event.

Not all of the panelists have degrees in computer science, or even Bachelor's degrees. Jenna L'Esperence was just hired full-time at BoomTown as their first female developer. After working in retail she decided to go back to school and chose programming because it wouldn't involve customer service. "I didn't even have a computer," she said. She's comfortable being the only woman on the team and her coworkers "say I'm a like a really cool dude with long hair."

Jamie Sue Goodman, the Technical Program Manager with Google, worked to develop CS First in the Lowcountry including partnering with companies like BoomTown to execute the program within local schools. Their goal is to increase computer science exposure among K – 12 students through afterschool and summer programs. They are "building an identity for women and minorities who are under represented in computer science," Goodman said. Most curricula are created by males and are male-oriented. CS First's goal was to offer neutral or gender specific programs. For every technology and gaming program there's a technology and fashion program.

Things will be different for the younger generations as this conversation continues and more women shift from programming to starting companies and educating the youth. The advent of events like last night's Women in Tech, and programs like CODECamp are proof that Charleston is encouraging more women to enter the field. Gender balance is important to all industries and the more women developers there are the stronger the industry will be.