Global Observer

In Berlin, the code word is 'women'

In Berlin, the code word is 'women'

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BERLIN -- In an age where only a fraction of web users have direct influence over the technology on which they heavily depend, an increasing number of women in Europe are stepping up to bridge the knowledge gap.

BERLIN — It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning in one of the guiltiest clubbing metropolises in the world. Despite the temptation of vice, dozens of young women clamour cheerfully around tables on the 4th floor of a Kreuzberg co-working space.

The crowd is unmistakably stylish: big sweaters, worn Aasics, colorful winter hats and high-bun hair might suggest some alternative fashion convention. On the contrary, it's the Berlin leg of the free, women's Ruby on Rails (RoR) coding workshop Rails Girls.

“We got applications in every field from voice pedagogy to environmental conservationism,” Finnish organizer Linda Liukas said, beaming with pride as she scanned the room.

“These girls with their weird backgrounds will make weird applications that developer-boys may have never come up with. This is why we're encouraging coding literacy and know-how among girls.”

Her workshop co-founder Karri Saarinen said part of his motivation for the project has been visions of a better technological world for men as well as women.

“If I go to a hospital, I want things to work well — or maybe I want helpful apps available, and these things could certainly be done better,” Saarinen said.

Liukas contends that baby apps and new kinds of webshop experiences are only a few examples of the kinds of creativity feminine sensibilities can bring to the table. But current industry imbalances are by no means limited to a gender gap, she says, pointing out that only a code-savvy fraction of Facebook's 2,000 employees set the agenda for some 800 million users worldwide.

“Right now you have a lot more people using code than are influencing it,” Liukas said. “This wasn’t the case 20 years ago, before computing and web connectivity exploded into the mainstream.”

Meanwhile, the duo gleefully pointed out their volunteer instructors, who were scuttling around the room: a woman named Lena was constantly on her feet, dutifully tending to her students, when it became clear that she is also pregnant. Shortly after, we heard instructor Joan speak, a charismatic U.S. expat who says she began coding as recently as January 2011.

This patchwork constellation of RoR professionals indeed triggers questions about what untapped creative reserves may lie beneath the surface of a global demographic that has traditionally shied away from careers in backend web development - particularly with women filling many other industry positions so well.

Anneke Jong of The Daily Muse notes an important, but often overlooked, distinction between Silicon Valley's definition of a "technical professional" and anyone working in the tech industry:

Fast Company and The Huffington Post... both published lists last year to honor the tech industry’s top women... [drawing] attention to talented and powerful women who are taking the tech industry by storm. But if you look closely at the lists, an interesting fact emerges: Only about a third of the women on either list can code... Conversely, nearly all of the top men in tech have software engineering backgrounds. Imagine your disappointment if only a third of the “Top Women in Music” were musicians. Similarly, it would be a little weird if an overwhelming majority of the leading women in medicine had never studied science.

Jong goes on to note the importance of web developers' unique power to create, as well as the positive influence this power affords them and their respective demographics.

Pearl Brilmyer, a doctoral candidate from UT Austin, is in Berlin for a year-long fellowship and took part in Rails Girls as a student.

"I think it's important to see people like Joan, with her enthusiasm and optimism about how quickly one can learn when one is working hard. It's inspiring. I do think it's more about inspiring one another to ask questions, to go and do things; that's what you really get out of something like this.”

Social pinboard Pinterest made headlines earlier this year when it became one of the fastest growing social networks on the web within months of launching. Its second claim to fame, however, was (and continues to be) an overwhelmingly female audience, estimated at anywhere between 60 and 80 percent since January.

When asked if they viewed this phenomenon as the tip of an iceberg, Liukas and Saarinen seemed to have much greater expectations for women here:

"Berlin has such a strong counter culture, art scene and so forth, that it could do something way cooler than Pinterest."

In a few months, Luikas will relocate to New York City to assume her position as Community Manager at Codecademy - a code-education startup - while Saarinen is considering a move to Berlin. But for now, they're both still  tooling around Europe, hosting the latest installments of their quest to spread the good word of Ruby. The two said that, at about 75 participants, Berlin's event was the largest thus far.

“Coding is literacy," Liukas said, citing an Andy Weisman quote: "The most important languages of the future are English, Chinese and Javascript."

“So these things are important to profoundly changing societies everywhere. That's why it's so important to have an approachable way to spread knowledge like this," Saarinen said.

"I guess what we're trying to say is, coding isn't what you think it is."

MEDIA: Rails Girls Berlin 2012 video

PHOTOS: Jemina Lehmuskoski

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure