Intro to Rails Girls for HASTAC 2013

This is a draft of a lightening talk I will be giving a HASTAC 2013 on Rails Girls, a seminar popular around the world for introducing women to programming in Ruby on Rails.

One ongoing source of tension in the digital humanities community has been coding. How important is the ability to code to participation in the digital humanities? Does “playing around” require playing in the code base or can it be done using existing tools?

Regardless of ones position in this debate, it is hard to deny that coding is increasingly valued in digital scholarship. From the “Digging into Data” grants to the publications in the Journal of Digital Humanities and Digital Humanities Quarterly, work that leverages code for data manipulation, for analysis, or for presentation is often the work being noticed.

This preference for code and data is not in itself a problem. The problem is that the vast majority of those doing coding work are male. This is by no means just an academic problem – the New York Times reported in 2011 that only 19% of software developers are women, with that number falling in many high profile companies.1 With the world becoming increasingly computer driven, both inside and outside of academia, the absence of women in positions to shape the tools we rely on is a major problem.

The gender gap in programming is a known problem and there have been a number of gestures toward possible solution. One of the higher profile solutions was the declaration of the 2012 as a year of code. 34

This approach, however, was not without its well deserved critics. As Miriam Posner and others pointed out, the issue is much more complicated than is acknowledged in general “calls to code.” In fact, there is a larger, cultural barriers that makes it difficult for women and minorities to break into a programming world dominated by white, middle class, males. 5

Fortunately, there are a number of people within the technology world who have also identified the problem of culture and have created some interesting initiatives in response. The solutions I am focused on today are programs committed to creating communities of women programmers at all levels of programming skill.

Two models which I think offer valuable lessons for those of us in the digital humanities who are interested in seeing more women doing computational analysis are Rails Girls and Girl Develop It. These programs acknowledge that asking women to learn “on their own” and break into the existing tech culture does nothing to address the cultural barriers that women interested in code face. Instead, they show how the barrier to entry can by lowered by intentionally creating environments for learning that are predominately female.

So what is Rails Girls?

Rails Girls was started in November, 2010 in Helsinki by Linda Liukas and Karri Saarinen. It is a day long seminar teaching a basic introduction to web development using Ruby on Rails, a web framework for creating web applications. Just to show that this is no marginal language, Ruby on Rails is the framework behind such web applications as TwitterBasecamp, and for the knitters in the room, Ravelry.

Rails Girls is structured as an introduction to the many layers of web development. The day includes a series of short introductions to the technology used to run web applications and the process of moving a design from idea to web application. The majority of the time is spent setting up and walking through a ruby on rails app, with introductions to ruby syntax and the structure of the application. The assumption is that the majority of participants have no or very little experience with programming. At the same time, a variety of skill levels are accommodated by grouping participants according to their technical skill, with each group of 4-5 being guided by a mentor who can provide additional information and context. By the end of the day, participants aim have a working basic application. Participants do not learn enough in one day to base a career on, but the seminar helps women interested in code to overcome some of the initial hurdles of language and of community.

That Rails Girls is meeting a need in the field is evidenced by its growing popularity. Since the first Rails Girls event, there have been over 60 seminars with many more scheduled to occur. The majority of these have taken place outside of the US. The list of held and planned seminars is available at the Rails Girls website.

For those less interested in learning Ruby on Rails and more interested in general programming skills, another solution offered in the tech world is Girl Develop It. Rather than a set course of study, Girl Develop It focuses on supporting a local community of women coders. The community in San Francisco, for example, holds “Code and Coffee” events where women gather to socialize, work on code, and ask each other questions. These communities also offer courses for members on basics of web development, including HTML, CSS, Javascript and jQuery. These meetups and classes support a community of women coders and encourage those looking to learn technical skills by mitigating some of the cultural barriers faced by women trying to enter the predominately male world of programming through the creation of networks and communities of women who code.

Women in tech are creating opportunities for women to come together to learn to code. While we in academia should join them and make connections outside of the academic sphere, we should also be more proactive about the need to create similar opportunities within academia. For one, the goals of programming for humanities research are different than the goals of commercial web development. Most of us are not looking to launch a career as a professional developer. Most of us are jealous of, but not aiming for, the salary of a junior developer.

And so, some of the larger goals promoted at events like Rails Girls need to be rethought for the digital humanities environment. The goal of many of us interested in learning computational skills centers on how to gather digital material in such a way to make text analysis, geolocation, visualizations, etc. possible. Learning skills of data manipulation and database construction opens up a whole range of “coding” based analysis. And both of these can be introduced using the model of Rails Girls and Girl Develop it.