Empowering women with technology

Gender in Technology

Written By: Sean Trembath 23/06/15

Brittany Melnyk and Marli Bells learned in university what it was like being women in the male-dominated world of computer science. Now they’re working to enhance the technical skills of other women and bring more diversity to their industry.

As co-ordinators of the Saskatoon chapter of Ladies Learning Code, a Canada-wide non-profit, they’ve run workshops on a variety of tech and coding topics. The learning environment they’ve fostered allows women who might not otherwise dabble in computer code to do so. They were recently recognized for their efforts with a nomination for the YWCA Women of Distinction awards.

“We’re very passionate about what we do,” Melnyk says.

Both started at the University of Saskatchewan in other programs and got hooked by an introductory comp sci course. After making the switch, they stood out. Sometimes, one would be mistaken for the other merely because they have blonde hair.

“To walk in on your first day and just see tons of men everywhere is not an amazing feeling. You think a little bit about whether this was a good choice,” Bells says.

Neither let it get them down. They loved the subject and quickly showed they were every bit as capable as their male classmates.

“I didn’t linger on the stereotypes. I didn’t focus on how many guys and girls there were,” Melnyk says.

Yet even five years after joining the workforce, they sometimes catch whiffs of discrimination. Melnyk says she has sometimes felt she needs to “go the extra mile” to prove her worth. They’ve heard insinuations that they got a job because of their gender, rather than their skills.

“That can be kind of disheartening because you know you’ve earned it. It’s sad people still think that way. We’re sad for them,” Bells says.

Whatever challenges they have faced, both women love their jobs and are passionate about technology. They want to see more women in the industry, something they say will benefit both the women and the industry itself. It’s all about breaking barriers, many of which lie within the women who may have never considered technology as a life path.

“To show people this is a really cool, exciting career you can have, it’s kind of our duty to do that,” Melnyk says.

About 20 students, most of them women, sit in what usually serves as a lunch room for a Saskatoon tech company. They’ve all got laptops. Their time is split between listening to a lecturer and tapping away, putting what they’ve learned to use.

Two projection screens show line after line of code and explanations of what it is used for. The topic for this LLC event is Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a coding language used in the formatting of websites. The lesson is technical. The instructor, Kari Halstead, isn’t talking down to attendants. If anyone is having trouble with a concept, a mentor helps her one-on-one. There are no more than four learners to a mentor.

“It’s a personal, organic way of learning, rather than institutional,” Halstead says.

There’s nothing markedly feminine about the setup beyond a few esthetic details that give a fun, welcoming atmosphere.

“There are some nice touches that are whimsical in a way, I think, if you had a bunch of guys here they wouldn’t do. We have sparkles on our name tags, and balloons in the lobby, and there are vegetarian dishes,” she says.

Source: The Star Phoenix



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