It’s going on 18:30, but the windows of the co-working space in the 3rd district are already brightly lit. It is still winter, so the sun goes down quite early.
As you pass, you can peek inside the wide-open rooms. They are sparely furnished: Next to the large sofas, there are a few tall, leafy plants with pots set directly on the gray floors. People face each other across desks that are pushed together, fingers dancing over computer keyboards.
In one area sits a group of women in front of their laptops, the intense concentration radiating excitement. In front of them stand Barbara On-drisek and Eva Lettner, the founders of the nonprofit Women and Code that teaches programming skills to women. For free.
Lettner greets the group. “Today we are going to do some new things with [the programming language] Java- Script….” This is not a course, more what they call a study group. “We are not teaching you,” Lettner says. “You will be teaching yourselves.”
On entering, everyone gets a name tag. “In this business, it is very important to be well connected,” reminds Lettner. “So please… talk to each other.” Some of the women ex-change shy smiles. Most of them are strangers to each other. “Are you here for the first time?” one of the participants opens a conversation. The other shakes her head. “I’ve been coming here for about three months,” she says. “You’ll love it!” she gushes and tells about a yearlong scholarship that had been announced. She applied and “just before Christmas, they confirmed that they would take me!” For some, this is where opportunity begins.
A few chairs down, two women are shaking hands. “Nice to meet you. What do you do ‘in real life’?” One works for a mobile phone provider. The other owns a bookstore. “I have absolutely no previous knowledge in coding,” one confesses. “I don’t either,” shrugs the other. Here, there’s no shame. They both open their laptops, type in the link projected on the wall and click on the first online module. A word document opens with clear in-structions. “Alright,” mumbles the first, “let’s do this…”
NOT JUST A BOY’S CLUB
Women and Code is taught in English – good news for internationals, for two rea-sons: First, all programming languages use English terms. And second, classes in English can include people from other countries whose English is often stronger than their German. On that day, the class includes Lee from Taiwan, Soraya from Iran and Matya from Serbia. Others were from Bulgaria. Egypt. Czechia. Russia. And of course, Austria.
Twenty-year-old Jasmin Haller responded to a Facebook ad. “Normally, classes are so expensive,” says Haller. At Women and Code, she pays the standard €9 (as seat reservation), but can ask for it back at the end of the lesson. Most women donate the money to support Women and Code events – and the pizza and drinks for active participants.
Haller went to a Viennese Realgymnasium (science high school) – with a focus on social issues, gender and environmental studies – where they did a lot of projects on women and the sciences. The girls were encouraged to consider careers in science and technology, and visited the Technical University Vienna (TU). “Maybe I will do my own website at some point,” says Haller, a writer who has been considering creating a blog. “Programming looks so difficult. It’s impressive when people know how to do it.” Part of the problem is, “it has always been a ‘boy’s thing,’” she says as she tugs her hair behind her ears. “Girls are supposed to do something in art, music or the social sciences.”
Aya Elghanam, (23) and Omnea Ahmed (23) are both students, one studying mass media & communications and the other business administration. They have been friends for years and to-gether decided to join Women and Code, where they could have a group of people to train with. “Chatting with a bot gets boring and strange,” she grins. “I wanted to have a community.” Her goal: to be able to program apps. Elghanam took longer to convince. But Ahmed pushed her out of her comfort zone. “I said, new year, new me! Let’s try it!”
Twenty-year-old Toni Schachl came by herself. “There are not enough women in the scene,” she says. “Girls get told that it is not their thing, that women are not technically skilled.” When she was younger, she had wanted to make a web-site, but got no support. “So, I figured, I am probably not talented enough. If someone had encouraged me, I might have felt differently.” Women’s reluctance, she is convinced, “has a lot to do with stereotypes.”
“It’s not magic, it’s skill, like carpentry or playing the piano. You just have to repeat it .” Eva Lettner, co-founder of Women and Code
THE CABLE CEILING
These stereotypes are what Lettner and Ondrisek are trying to fight. “Politics and education play a big part here,” Lettner says. Statistically speaking, young girls and boys have the same understanding of mathematics, but with time, the girls lose their confidence. Still, the situation is improving “in baby steps,” Ondrisek insists. In 1998 when she began studying informatics at TU, women were only 8% of the student body. Today, they are up to 40% in certain computer science study programs such as medical computer science.
Why teach only women? In part, because they are underrepresented in tech jobs. But it also has to do with the dynamics in the classroom: “I used to teach mixed classes,” Lettner remembers. Again and again, the same pattern emerged. The men asked questions during the lessons, the women during the breaks. “Or they didn’t come to me at all, but asked their male colleagues, who were just as clueless as they were,” she says wryly. “Sometimes, women just believe that the men are more competent and so are embarrassed to ask questions. This has a lot to do with society and schools.” So, Lettner and Ondrisek de-cided, just women. (They also welcome anybody from the LGBTQI community who identifies as female. “We won’t be doing gynecological examinations!”)
They should know, say Ondrisek and Lettner: Rarely a day goes by where they do not receive another offer.