Only 29% of all employees across the most influential U.S. technology companies–Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Intel–are women. But that includes salespeople, service workers, and communications professionals. Companies that break out gender ratio by role report an an even more drastic disparity. At Twitter, 10% of technical workers are women. At Facebook, it’s 16%.
Computer science programs across the country report a similar dearth of women. As of 2012, the last year for which the National Science Foundation has published data, only about 18% of degrees in the field were obtained by women, the lowest percentage of any STEM discipline.
But there is one corner of this pale, male landscape that has less of a gender imbalance than others: coding schools.
Also called coding bootcamps, these schools teach basic programming skills to students who typically don’t have previous experience, charging on average about $11,000 for a 10-week course. According to Course Report, which has aggregated data from 63 coding bootcamps in the U.S. and Canada, 38% of these programs’ graduates were women in 2014.
“We still have the problem—it’s just not as bad,” says Daisha Versaw, who estimates that about 35% of graduating classes at the Turing School, a seven-month program in Denver for which she is the manager of marketing and communications, have been women.
As technology companies and universities scramble to correct embarrassing gender imbalances—providing bias mitigation training, hosting women-focused events, establishing internships that focus on underrepresented groups, and investing hundreds of millions of dollars—it’s worth asking how, exactly, coding schools have made more effective moves towards gender parity.
One answer is in the admissions process. Requirements like previous coding experience, or even the need to make the decision to major in computer science at an early age, might limit the number of women who apply to traditional programs. Bootcamps, meanwhile, typically base admissions on aptitude tests and interviews. “We don’t have ‘standard’ prerequisites: special schools, degrees, ages, standardized testing, or even past careers,” says Diane Hessan, the CEO of the Startup Institute, an eight-week program in Boston where 41% of past graduates have been women. “Bootcamps offer more of a meritocracy, and that attracts people of all kinds.”
Coding schools are also relatively new, and many of them have made including people with diverse backgrounds a goal from the start. “The typical CS programs with male-dominant classes are indirectly marketing that not everyone can code,” says Aaron Fazulak, a cofounder of Designation Labs, a UI/UX design bootcamp in Chicago where about 64% of graduates have been women. “We have gotten it right since day one, which makes things a lot easier than starting off on the wrong foot.”
Angie Chang, the VP of strategic partnerships at Hackbright Academy, a coding school for women in San Francisco, also sees this marketing aspect as a boon for more gender diversity among coding bootcamps. “Girls are told if they’re an extrovert, then they don’t belong in engineering,” she says. Hackbright’s marketing materials intentionally show women at events and interacting with mentors to avoid this perception. “From the outright, we’e had diversity,” Fazulak says. “So when you see pictures of our graduates in our marketing materials, the precedent has already been set that anyone can go to our school.”
Coding bootcamps’ incentives are also aligned with promoting diversity to a degree that universitys’ incentives may not be. Students who enroll in bootcamps often have job placement at the top of their priority lists, and the schools advertise the rate at which they place students at jobs in their promotional materials and on their websites. It is thus in their interest to produce graduates who tech companies want to hire. Tech companies, meanwhile, have a crippling diversity problem, and they are rightly wanting to solve it. “The market demand is there for women who can code, as well as underrepresented minorities,” says Liz Eggleston, the cofounder of Course Report. “I don’t know that [four-year colleges] have the same imperative to place students. [Coding schools’] ability to place students is how we judge them.”
“For schools like ours, it makes sense to graduate people who are competitive—obviously, they have to have strong technical skills, but we realize employers want more than that,” says Turing School’s Versaw. “Soft skills and diverse perspectives and experiences give our graduates a competitive edge, which in turn gives us a competitive edge.”
Some coding schools have incorporated educating women and underrepresented minorities into their DNA. Telegraph Academy, a 12-week program based in Oakland, for instance, markets itself as “the premier software engineering bootcamp for people of color underrepresented in tech.” Hackbright and Ada, a seven-month program in Seattle, enroll only women.
But most coding schools, even those without these stated missions, offer some sort of scholarship for women and/or minority students. In an effort to attract students with diverse backgrounds, for instance, Flatiron School in New York City has partnered with the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline and the Workforce Development Corporation to offer a free intensive course for people who make less than $50,000 per year and have no college degree. General Assembly, arguably the largest of the tech training schools, has an “opportunity fund” that provides full scholarships for courses to women, veterans, people of color, disconnected youth, and low-income individuals Many schools, like Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, offer automatic discounts on tuition. Dev Bootcamp in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago has a “diversity manager” role.
It’s not that universities are not also trying to promote gender diversity in their computer science courses (some do so quite effectively), but rather that small, startup coding bootcamps often have more flexibility to do so. “If we want to change our marketing or offer a scholarship last minute because we feel like a cohort is going to be too homogeneous, we can do that,” says Versaw. “CS programs are embedded in big institutions/universities and rarely have the flexibility or power to adapt like that.”
As coding bootcamps contribute a bigger and bigger portion of the talent pool from which tech companies recruit—last year, Course Report counted about 7,000 graduates; this year, it expects 16,000—that’s good news for women in tech.
But it’s not necessarily good news for all aspects of diversity, at least not yet.
As much relative success as coding bootcamps may have had promoting women in their programs, they’re still generally pretty dismal at including underrepresented minorities. Course Report’s survey found that just 1% of coding-camp graduates are black (18% identified as Asian-American, 63% as white, and 17% as “other”). That’s about the same rate of underrepresentation as at companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. It is worse than underrepresentation at Amazon, Apple, and Intel.
“There has been a lot of attention on gender diversity the past few years, longer than we have been focusing on racial diversity as an issue in the industry,” says Bianca Gandolfo, a cofounder of Telegraph Academy, at which 85% of graduates have been people of color underrepresented in tech. “Race is a very sensitive topic, so I think gender has been an easier and safer topic to discuss.”
“It’s like any other business you go after,” Liliana Monge, the cofounder of Los Angeles-based coding school Sabio.la, recently commented at a panel about diversity in coding schools. “If you say, look, I want to make sure I’m achieving these types of goals, then you have to align your marketing dollars to match that audience . . . You can’t just sit back and say, they’re not [applying]. Well, what would you do if customers weren’t coming? You would actively go out and look for them.”