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When She Codes, The Revolution's Coming
Is Ladies Learning Code awesome and feminist, or just awesome?

Photo: Dominique Lamberton

The magazine I also work for, is rebuilding our website in WordPress. This would be easier if I knew how to use WordPress. In meetings, I’ve said things like “I want that round thing to go next to that button thing, do you know what I mean?” Unsurprisingly, our website developer did not.

“You’re posting in visual, not HTML,” editor-in-chief Serah-Marie McMahon would gently remind me at first. The third and fourth reminders were not so gentle. I learned how to get a blog post up, but when it came to re-designing the entire site, I was hopeless. I knew I was missing the vocabulary to effectively communicate my input. And so I, a lady who needed to learn code, signed up for the second WordPress event hosted by Ladies Learning Code. Eighty people attended with a goal: to build a WordPress.org from scratch.

Ladies Learning Code famously began with a tweet. In June 2011, Heather Payne posted a call for help: “I want to learn to code (a bit) and I want other ladies in #Toronto to join me.” Payne says she expected 10 to 15 people to respond. Six months later, workshops sell out in minutes and wait lists are hopelessly long.

Payne works with Breanna Hughes, Melissa Crnic, and Laura Plant to stage workshops to help female beginners learn vital computer skills. Recently Ladies Learning Code announced their newest venture: a March Break camp for girls aged 11-14. “Even for those women who aren’t ever going to pursue careers in technology, there is something to be said for being digitally literate,” says Heather. “It means you are armed with the tools you need to be a creator–not just consumer–of the web. Even if you never actually launch a website, knowing that you can is empowering.”

Yes! Empowering! That’s what I was looking for. I hate the cliche of being a woman who is afraid of technology; I hate relying on someone else to speak for me. I love the Internet (I would marry the Internet if I could), so shouldn’t I learn to create as well as consume? I knew I had found the perfect WordPress class: feminism and computers, relevant to all my interests.

At Ladies Learning Code, lead instructor Wes Bos guides the students through a series of exercises. Hughes and the instructors develop the exercises with women in mind. “We’re thinking about how women learn, especially beginners, what is digestible, and what’s relevant–and applicable to daily life,” says Hughes. A feeling of accomplishment is paramount: each workshop is designed so that the students leave having built something. They’ve also learned something, hopefully for life.

“I learned online, reading blogs, hanging out in chat rooms. The [Wordpress] community basically raised me.” says Bos. When I asked people for potential reasons women might be intimidated by coding, they cited a fear of language. Avery Swartz, a mentor at another table, works as a freelance website designer. “A lot of my clients are women. They don’t necessarily want to work with a man because they are afraid of the intimidation factor, the tech speak, the ‘jargon’. I want women to feel empowered, to know that they can take an active role.”

If you do not have a computer background, the vocabulary can be overwhelmingly confusing. Several times, Wes would pause to ask, “Does anyone have questions?” I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Yes, I have a question. Um, what?”

But then there were times I’d lean over my friend’s shoulder and whisper the solution to her problem, explaining a concept I had learned only hours ago. The collective pride was palpable. We had entered the room at noon as a group that knew almost nothing. By 2 p.m., we acquired a new language.

Yep, as I hoped, Ladies Learning Code is a warm, welcoming, sociable environment for anyone who wants to learn a new skill. But: why ladies? Why not Beginners Learning Code?

All the mentors said the same thing: we need more women in coding. “I go to a lot of conferences where it is just men,” said Peter Newhook, my table mentor. “It’s so clear once you’ve been in that for awhile that you need female influence on the process. Otherwise you end up creating these sites and these programs that work how men think.”

In an email interview, Payne articulated her answer beautifully. “It’s important that under-represented groups take action to become more digitally literate,” she wrote. “If we allow the future of the web, software, hardware, video games, etc. to be conceptualized, created and maintained by just one sector of the population, it’s impossible to expect that it will serve the needs of the entire group. Women, like other groups who participate in technology in lower numbers, need a voice, too.”

PREACH, I thought. But did she mean to preach? I’d assumed Ladies Learning Code was a feminist organization because of my own feminist bias. But it was also because of the language used. The words “empowering” and “democratic” were thrown around a lot; the phrase “even the playing field” was evoked more than once. Everyone talked about a commitment to equality. I took for granted that we were all speaking the same language.

When I asked Wes if he identified as a feminist, he replied, “No, I don’t,” and then paused. “I’m not sure what I identify as. I kind of–everyone is equal. I’m not exactly sure if that means feminist or not but… I wouldn’t put a label on it. I would just say we’re coders here, we’re developers.”

Payne expressed similar sentiments. “I don’t think Ladies Learning Code is a feminist organization. That wasn’t why it was started. It’s not about feminism, but it is about addressing this issue in technology. So…” she trailed off for a second. “I don’t know. I’m not being very eloquent here.”

Faced with the same question, Newhook hesitated before responding that he did not. “Any particular reason?” I pressed.

He paused again. “I believe in suffrage, if that’s what we’re getting at.”

That was not what I was getting at. I was not asking if he believed women should have the right to vote. I was asking if he identified as someone who believed in equality between the sexes.

“Obviously I believe in equality,” Peter said. “But,” and then another pause. “I’d say I’m a ‘technologist’. And whether that developer is male or female…I’m not overly concerned with.”

Here we were, a group of students and teachers who identified as being concerned with the lack of equal gender representation in the tech industry. A group of people who are committed to helping women succeed in practical, real-life ways. And yet! Not feminists.

In my email interview, Laura Plant responded: “Ladies Learning Code is not a feminist organization. We recognize the power of diversity and want to seek ways to attract more women and girls in to the tech industry – for their own personal benefit and the overall potential of the industry.  Ladies Learning Code receives an enormous amount of support from men, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without it.”

One of those things is not like the other. There are many good reasons to not identify as a feminist–s.e. smith wrote about her excellent reasons for not identifying as a feminist here–but I do not personally believe your positive feelings about men are one such reason.

I do know that the predominant reason for not identifying as a feminist is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word. People often believe the worst stereotypes about feminism. They have been scared off by the jargon. In that way, feminism has something in common with, er, computerism. The codification of feminism has created misunderstandings about feminists, like the ones this feminist had about coders.

So is Ladies Learning Codes feminist or not? Does it matter? “The name is designed to be a specific invitation,” Payne said. “So if you’re a lady, and you want to learn to code, this is clearly the place you belong.”

Here we have a problem of semantics. If an organization is committed to being fully inclusive, if it works to close a gender gap in an industry, does it matter if it does not declare itself to be feminist? If a tree that doesn’t identify as feminist falls in a feminist forest, does it achieve a feminist goal?

I left Ladies Learning Code having accomplished my goal. I built a WordPress.org – it was ugly, but it was mine. I learned a language I never thought I’d master. At my next WORN meeting, I’ll have intelligent questions and I’ll be able to answer the questions of other Wornettes.

Labels and names do matter to me. I could have taken a WordPress course anywhere; I chose one suited to my political beliefs. To me, a name like Ladies Learning Code is inherently political. To put women before men–even if men are welcomed, even if men are the leaders and the teachers–identifies you as a political organization with a political agenda. To put any sort of historically oppressed class at the forefront of the conversation is to make yourself the target of suspicion. Why women? Why now? Why here? Why not white, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied men?

Before I left, Payne and I talked about the educational merits of learning code. “This level of digital literacy is so important today. It’s the same as reading.” The ability to communicate for ourselves, to cut out the middle men (and they are almost always men) means that we write our own stories, on our own terms, on our own websites, regardless of gender, race, class, ability, or our personal political affiliations. It is a necessary freedom. The name Ladies Learning Code is exactly what Payne said it was: an open invitation, open to your interpretation. Only people committed to equality need accept.

Haley Mlotek has like four jobs (including PR director for Worn Journal) and last wrote for Toronto Standard about being a beauty school dropout.

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