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Washington State Group Announces One-Year Programming Academy for Women

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Tired of hearing about the programming gender gap? Here’s people doing something about it.

In response to concerns about a lack of women in the programming hub of Washington State, a nonprofit has formed that intends to train women with no programming experience to be developers in a year – for free.

Formed last May, the Ada Developers Academy (named after Ada Lovelace, arguably the world’s first programmer) plans to accept 15 to 20 students in October 2013, ramping up to 80 to 100 students per year. The application deadline is Monday, September 30 and is open to all U.S. citizens, not just people from Washington.

Program manager Elise Worthy had just finished the Hungry Academy five-month developer boot camp. She was talking with Scott Case, now on the Ada steering committee, about the hard time he was having hiring engineers. Case asked Worthy what she thought about the idea of having a similar boot camp, but just for women. “We realized the potential, started meeting, and it all fell together,” she says.

The Academy program lasts a year: six months doing intensive Web development study of languages and concepts such as HTML/CSS, JavaScript, Ruby on Rails, and database fundamentals, followed by a six-month internship in a Puget Sound-based company. While the training is not on the level of a college degree, graduates will have all the skills needed to be a competent junior developer, Worthy says. “There’s lots of Web developers who don’t have college degrees or high school diplomas,” she says. “It’s the nerd underdog hero story: Someone learned in their basement and started a multimillion-dollar company.”

Some training programs claim graduates can become competent developers in eight weeks. However, Worthy says, “We think six months is a much better time to absorb it all. It’s like learning a language – immerse and repeat and have as much practice as possible.”

Not only is the program free to participants, but students receive a $1,000 monthly stipend, Worthy notes. The program doesn’t currently include child care, “but if that does come up, we should address it,” she says.

The project is funded by the Technology Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit group of technology companies that also helped the academy get some state and federal funding. Seed money came from a $46,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce, Worthy says. It is intended to address 20,000 unfilled jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) – 65% of which are in computer science – as well as address the current inequity between men and women’s income. “Women in Seattle make 73 cents per dollar that men make,” Worthy says, calling it the worst pay ratio in the nation.

It’s not just Seattle, or even Washington. Women fill just a small percentage of STEM jobs – and it’s getting worse. “The most recent decades show less growth in STEM employment among younger women,” writes Liana Christin Landivar in a September report from the U.S. Census Bureau, Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin. “Most of the growth in women’s share of STEM employment among those under the age of 40 occurred between 1970 and 1990.” This is particularly true in engineering and computer science occupations, which make up more than 80% of STEM jobs, she notes. “Women’s representation in computer occupations has declined since the 1990s,” she writes. “This mirrors the decline in women’s share of bachelor’s degrees in computer science awarded since the 1980s.”

Why just for women? Because some hiring managers, in response to these statistics, are particularly interested in hiring women, Worthy says. “The need is very top-of-mind,” she says. In addition, there are other training options for men, though they aren’t free like the Ada Developers Academy is, she admits. Moreover, some women and girls have encountered sexism in school and training programs themselves; an all-female class may forestall that problem.

The Ada Developers Academy isn’t the only such effort to challenge this trend. A number of other parallel training opportunities for women are also springing up, some for students and some for working women, to help fill jobs and address the growing gender gap in programming.

The wiki.gnome.org Outreach Program for women internships opens its application process on October 1, closing on November 1, for internships that run from December 10 to March 10, 2014. The most recent round included internships from 19 organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, WordPress, and the Linux kernel.

Organizations such as Geek Girl also offer tech conferences, with several more planned. The National Center for Women in Information Technology sponsors events for girls in middle and high school, such as a Dallas-based “Geeky Girls Camp” this summer associated with the University of Texas.

But none of these programs is as extensive as the Ada Developers Academy.

And beyond Washington? “I think that would be wonderful,” Worthy says, adding that she was contacted by a woman in Vancouver who’s also interested in starting a chapter. “We want to prove it’s a sustainable, scalable model; and certainly with the demand in Seattle, we think we can help. There are other cities that are just as bad or worse in terms of hiring, so hopefully it can just transfer over.”

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