Alternative Paths To Software Engineering For Women

This guest blog was written by Taryn Ewens, who is a Sydney based Software Developer

It’s common knowledge that the gender gap in STEM industries is significant. A 2018 women in STEM professions survey report shared some unsurprising figures. Across all STEM sectors, women represented only 27% of the workforce.

This report also broke the data down into “qualified STEM graduates”. Only 16% of the qualified STEM population are women. It seems like while there are not many women in the STEM workforce, there are even less who are considered to be qualified. So if these women are not coming from university, where are they coming from? This article will look at some alternative paths that women are taking in software engineering and my own experience.

Coding Bootcamps

There are a number of coding boot camps available, such as General Assembly and Coder Academy, and more are popping up all the time. Some are just 12 weeks, while others can be 6-12 months. In some, you leave with the skills alone, and in others, you leave with a certificate or diploma. There are pros and cons to this approach, but it’s one that many women are choosing as an alternative to a four-year degree.

Self-taught/learning online

There are many online resources to learn software engineering these days, many of which are free. A dedicated person can absolutely learn all the skills required to gain employment as a junior software engineer without an in-person course. I’ve heard of many women who have chosen this option because it allows them to learn at their own pace and to fit their studies into their busy schedules. This is especially important if you can’t afford to take time away from a full-time job or if you have family or other responsibilities.

Not-for-profit groups

More and more groups are popping up these days that organise free workshops to teach women to code. Often run by volunteers, these groups are a great way for women to attend introductory level classes (and often more advanced ones as well). Some even allow children to be brought along to the events, which is essential for many women. I recently began compiling a list of groups inspiring Australian girls and women in STEM that you can check out if you’re interested in attending a workshop or supporting a group.

But what about computer science?

Many companies that scale products globally require computer science knowledge in their roles. Many alternative study options will not cover computer science in depth. Recently, General Assembly added some computer science theory to their boot camps, changing them from web development immersive to software engineering immersive. It’s a start, although considering the 12-week time frame hasn’t changed, I can’t imagine it’s extensive.

However, the knowledge required can still be gained without a computer science degree. MIT has a website of open courses, which includes a section on computer science. Topics covered include algorithms and data structures, computer design and engineering, theory of computation and more! Instead of companies requiring a computer science degree, they could be supporting people to learn these concepts.

Taryn, Front-End Engineer, and author of this article

My experience

I took the coding boot-camp path. I taught myself some basic HTML and CSS as a kid, but I didn’t know it was a career option and I didn’t know any women who could code.

Ten years later, while making confectionery for a living, it finally dawned on me that I could learn how to code for a career. I finished up my confectioner role as well as a coding boot camp, and three and a half months later, I started my first role as a junior developer at Finder. The boot camp was a perfect choice for me because I wanted to make the change quickly and couldn’t afford to take four years to study at University. I had rent and bills to pay!

Since joining this industry, I’ve met many women in Tech and some have relevant degrees but the majority do not. Many came to the tech industry later in life.

Looking at the statistics here in Australia, this 2019 youth in STEM research report found that “In Years 9 and 10, 70 percent of male students surveyed were currently undertaking at least one STEM elective subject, compared to only 32 percent of female students.” Is it any surprise then that women are not choosing STEM education straight out of school?

What can we do to help?

It’s clear that many women make their way to software engineering from “non-traditional” backgrounds, so what can we do to support them?

I’m far from being an expert in the area of gender diversity. I’ve only been a software engineer for 18 months and I can only speak from my own experiences. However, my first port of call would be to remove IT and computer science degrees from job requirements. Some of the best engineers I’ve worked with have been self-taught or have come through coding boot camps. They often come with additional life experience that can be incredibly beneficial to an engineering team.

We can also support groups that are inspiring, mentoring and teaching underrepresented groups in the STEM industries. You can volunteer your time or you can support these groups financially.

Here are some thoughts from women I know who took a “non-traditional” path to software engineering:

“Though I have a master’s degree in electrical engineering, I never used to consider myself as a candidate for software engineering roles. I was convinced that programming required someone with strong logical thinking. I also thought coding was boring until a developer I know mentioned that it feels more like art for him. You can implement a given task in so many ways.

Inspired, I completed a short C# course and soon started working as a full-time developer. Four years later, I enjoy my profession immensely and hope that more and more girls will join IT in the future.”

– Tania Tkachuk, Full-stack Engineer
“I fell into office administration when I moved to Australia. I didn’t go to university and to be honest I didn’t think there were many other options open to me. A career in tech was certainly not something that was ever presented to me at school; it just wasn’t on my radar. I’d always considered myself to be creative and technical, so I started teaching myself to code in my free time. I wasn’t progressing quickly enough, so I looked into the option of doing a full-time coding boot camp.

I left my office admin role, went off to General Assembly for three months and started my first role as a developer three days after I finished the course. That was nearly four and a half years ago. I’m still at the same company as a mid-level engineer and I love that I get to solve technical problems whilst building beautiful and responsive websites that help and delight users on a daily basis.”

– Gemma Stiles, Front-end Engineer
“I didn’t know anything about programming when I was in school. I didn’t even know it was a career for boys, let alone me. I was always drawn to tech but without knowing anyone else who worked in the industry, or who was even very interested in it, I wasn’t aware of the options available to pursue a tech-based career.

I was working for other tech companies in content marketing when my partner and I started Hello Code. I was already interested in the technical side of the businesses I worked for, but had never had a chance to explore that much. Once we started building our first product, I had a go at learning to code.

In the beginning, I did some online tutorials and then I pretty much worked feature-by-feature on my own project, looking up specific reference materials and tutorials for each feature as I went.”

– Belle B. Cooper, iOS Developer
“I graduated from my Bachelor of Business with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for a career. I was building a website for a business idea I had using an old-school website builder when I hacked away a little too much and broke it! Their support team couldn’t help me and told me I would be better off just starting over.

With my “it can’t be that hard” attitude, I figured I would just learn how to do it myself. I googled “how to build a website”, and soon enough, I was deep into Treehouse’s Front End Development track – completely obsessed and inspired by the world that was opening up in front of me. I was running out of savings but my gut told me there was something in this, so I committed to another four months of deep diving. I would either have a job at the end of it or I’d be broke. The stakes were high!

Three months later, I applied for a junior role at an agency in Sydney and I landed it! I cried as soon as I hung up the phone, I still can’t quite believe my bet paid off. That was almost five years ago now and I haven’t looked back since!”

– Verity Stothard, Front-end Developer
“Computers were not really something that was provided as courses at the all-girls school I attended – not like what I saw my brothers’ all-boys school had. Until I found out about the Internet, I didn’t realise programming was a career option, but I did a lot of temp work that included picking up new technologies and doing computer training.

After teaching myself HTML and simple coding, I enrolled as a mature-aged student in an online software engineering course at Southern Cross University. I needed a remote course as I had a young child and was living in Malaysia at the time. With moving and three children, it took me seven and a half years to graduate before I moved into a web job with the Australian Federal Government. Over the next couple of years I worked in different departments including being the web manager of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and last year, I gave a presentation to the Women in Technology group at DFAT.”

– Bri Norton, Digital Strategist
It took me a whole decade to realise that a career in technology was an option for me and to find the confidence to learn programming. I’m not the only one.

We need to stop gatekeeping this industry and make it more accessible and inclusive to everyone. We can’t all follow the same path or the same timeline, and tech companies shouldn’t expect us to.

Taryn Ewens is a Sydney-based Front End Software Developer. Follow Taryn on Twitter for more blogs and updates. Taryn currently works at Atlassian and is also an organiser with the tech community meetup group, Men Championing Change. She is passionate about inclusion, accessibility and improving user experiences for all. When she’s not coding, Taryn can usually be found strolling Sydney’s beaches with her two beloved floofs, Lexi and Sprite, the Samoyeds.

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Further reading

How to build a genuinely diverse and inclusive tech workforce without underestimating women’s abilities and potential.
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Uncover the differences between traditional and progressive HR and how the latter is essential to build diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, especially on the verge of the fifth revolution.