Ladies Learning Code wants more women involved in technology

A National Ladies Learn to Code Day on September 24 takes a stand against the current online gaming industry

When Melissa Sariffodeen was a kid, she learned some HTML and started building websites for fun. It was the late 1990s and Sariffodeen played around on her family’s computer, writing code to make a Harry Potter-themed website. It wasn’t anything fancy and it wasn’t for the public, but Sariffodeen enjoyed the process: experimenting with coding language, building something from scratch and seeing the results.

By the time Sariffodeen went off to university, she pushed computer programming out of her mind. She got a business degree and eventually worked in accounting until six years ago, when she wanted to start a new career – something more technical.

At the time, there weren’t many web development courses for beginners, and certainly none that catered specifically to women. So she and a group of friends launched Ladies Learning Code, an initiative to teach women and girls of all ages how to write in computer programming languages and improve digital literacy. They now have chapters across Canada, and on September 24, they host the fourth annual National Ladies Learn to Code Day.

“The goal for us is to make technology accessible and the event is supposed to be an entry point for somebody who’s a beginner,” Sariffodeen explains. This year, Code Day expects over 1,500 participants and around 350 volunteer mentors.

Unlike the organization’s other workshops, this one is pay-what-you-can: the event is sponsored by Shopify, who is covering the cost of food and other course materials. 

Sariffodeen stresses the workshop is for absolute beginners and that all participants need to bring is a laptop. From there, experienced mentors will teach how to code in HTML and CSS. “If you don’t even know what you don’t know, that’s cool. Just show up.”

This year’s Code Day theme is gaming, a sector of the technology industry where women are largely underrepresented. According to Sariffodeen, 52 per cent of video gamers are women, but only 16 per cent of women help build games. Plus, cyber bullying directed at women is particularly bad in the gaming world. In the past few years, gender-based online violence has been especially rampant and thrust into mainstream discussion because of Gamergate.

“The only way I see that changing is by involving more women in the creation of games and these communities,” Sariffodeen says. “It’s not just about teaching women to code. It’s about getting them involved in this industry to create solutions, to create a more positive space, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Code Day is useful even for women not interested in video games. Sariffodeen says the majority of women who enroll in Ladies Learning Code classes choose to learn computer programming so they can increase their skills to take on projects at work or update their personal websites.

The age of participants ranges from 16 to 70 years old. Last year, the average age at Code Day was 37. Ladies Learning Code will also be hosting separate Girls Learning Code events for nine to 12-year-old girls in Toronto and Vancouver on September 24.

“A lot of people think technology is not for them, that it’s scary and daunting until they try,” Sariffodeen says. “But technology is everywhere. If women don’t understand how it works and don’t have opportunities to participate in building it, we are at the mercy of people who do. That for me is the driving force.”

National Ladies Learn to Code Day takes place September 24 from 10 am to 4 pm. Register online. | @michdas

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