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Being the Only Female in My Coding Boot Camp Cohort

This is something I’ve been asked about a lot, and I think it’s worth discussing, especially because more women are wanting to get involved in tech and the thought of being the only female in the room may be a concern – or even a deterrent – if they don’t know what that will be like. Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that non-binary and gender-non-conforming individuals need to be included in any conversation regarding gender disparity in tech and other professions. There were no individuals who identified as such in my cohort, but that doesn’t mean those individuals shouldn’t be considered when you think about the points I’m going to discuss. Okay, here we go!

Wait, just kidding, one more disclaimer: this is an unusual situation for LEARN Academy. The cohorts before and after mine each had several women in them, and LEARN makes an effort to welcome and support women in tech in their program, including offering a scholarship for women. Alright, NOW here we go!

The number one question I get asked about the situation is: Was it weird for you being the only girl?

The short answer is no, and that tends to surprise people. There are several reasons why this was the case for me specifically, and I’ll get into what those are in a moment. I get asked this question most often by other women, both those in other cohorts and those who aren’t doing boot camps but who are aware of my situation. However, I’ve also gotten asked this question by men. I appreciate that this is a topic of conversation, that it’s a concern women have, and that men are interested in understanding the perspective of women and gender minorities with whom they share the tech space. When asked this question, I need to qualify my response with the fact that my situation is unique, other people in my position may feel differently, and it’s an important conversation to continue having, especially in tech.

So. Why didn’t I feel uncomfortable being the only girl? Well, first of all…

I have an older brother. My brother is 18 years older than me, and when I was a kid he and his friends would often watch me while they were hanging out, play games with me, and build swings and things for me and my friends. They were all kind, upstanding dudes (shoutout to Josh, Nick, Dave, Joey, Rick, and Miles – and sorry for almost killing you on a zip line, Miles!) who treated me like their little sister. I had the rare privilege of growing up surrounded by young men who weren’t related to me, yet who always made me feel safe and cared for, and who never objectified or sexualized me. Therefore, thanks to that positive early experience, my initial instinctual response to being the sole female in a group of men isn’t to feel wary or insecure.

My cohort was small and tight. There were 13 of us on day one, 14 of us a few days later, and 12 of us by the end. A few outgoing members took the initiative to pull us all together with conversation, group lunches, and other activities, so we bonded as a cohort very quickly. I always felt like an equal member of a supportive friend group, and never like the token girl. Even when we were all still getting to know one another, my gender wasn’t the key facet of my identity. On the first day of class I wore my favorite t-shirt, which is the opening lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody written in JavaScript. I also had a full-time job that pulled me out of class for phone calls and work emails on occasion. I got the impression that I was “the one with the fun shirts” and “the one with the job” rather than “the girl”.

It was acknowledged, and then dropped. On the first day of class I met with Chelsea, the amazing founder of LEARN and one of the most caring people I’ve ever met, and she let me know I was probably going to be the only girl in this cohort and that if I ever felt uncomfortable or concerned in any way I could talk to her or any member of the staff. When I say the issue was dropped after that, I don’t mean it was ignored or brushed under the rug – I mean it just didn’t come up. No one made it a big deal or called attention to it, and that allowed everyone’s focus, including mine, to be on the learning process.

This wasn’t my first rodeo. Back in December, I joined my fellow Girls in Tech at the AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas. It was my first (and so far, only) major tech conference. Up to that point, my experience in the tech field was primarily in the context of events hosted by groups like Girls in Tech, Women Who Code, and Latina Geeks. I was always surrounded by women, and while I knew that tech is a male-dominated field, that wasn’t the reality I experienced. While waiting in line for the party on the first night, I looked around at the sea of dudes and realized the only women in sight were the ones I’d come with. Of course there must have been other genders represented in the crowd that night, but I didn’t see them. Later in the weekend I attended a smaller gathering put on by a company (I’ll admit it – I went for the free dinner), and I was the only woman there. I felt this immense pressure, as if everyone in the room was looking at me as a representative of my gender, and if I made a fool of myself it would reflect poorly on women everywhere. I later realized that was (probably) all in my head, and even if it wasn’t, I would really only be able to present myself well if I focused on myself rather than shouldering the burden of all of womankind.

To summarize, I completely understand and appreciate why some people would be uncomfortable as the only individual of their gender in a given situation – especially if they have experienced discrimination or violence based on their gender/gender expression in the past. It’s easy for me to say “don’t let fear or discomfort hold you back from your dreams” when my experiences have been so positive. Therefore, my more specific (and hopefully more helpful) advice is this, if you really want to attend a coding boot camp but you have concerns about being the only X in the room: talk to the staff, share your concerns, and ask what measures they take to ensure that each person feels safe and comfortable during this period of vulnerability and growth. A good boot camp – like LEARN – will be able to answer that question. Any boot camp that can’t answer that question to your satisfaction is not worth your time, money, or energy – and also has some serious work to do!

</ XOXO >

[Photo credit: Will Myers via Unsplash]

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