Female coder triumphs despite challenges from male counterparts

Gem Barrett shares how she finally has a job she loves after training as a web developer through the Open University

Learning IT skills in the male-dominated world of technology is a challenge for any female coder, as 28-year-old Gem Barrett knows full well.

Barrett is on the verge of completing a Bachelor of Science in computing, IT and design from the Open University (OU). Recently, she shared her journey with Computer Weekly as a female trying to find her way in work environments that can be very competitive and full of criticism from male counterparts.

Eight years ago Barrett was studying at university when unfortunately her father was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, so she decided to move back home to the Isle of Wight. He passed away not long after.

She said: “In 2009 I was still grieving and was unemployed on benefits. My mum sat me down and said I needed to pull myself together. She had used OU all my life, so I was aware of it.

“I started with short courses in HTML and CSS [Cascading Style Sheets]. These caught my eye and they fit in with design too, which I was also taking. Next, I took a JavaScript course and then I was hooked. I thought this is amazing and I need to look further into how I can continue with this. I took a diploma and then started my degree, which is a six-year course.”

During her studies, Barrett also ran her own business and had two part-time jobs. She now specialises in HTML5, CSS3, Swift, Sass, Javascript, Jira, Git and Grunt JS, among other skills. She is also an iOS developer in her spare time.

Challenges for female coders

Barrett said training for a career in technology has changed her life: “Before I didn’t think of having a job I could do for the love of it – it was just about earning money. I thought there were only a few lucky people in the world that enjoyed their jobs.”

She added that taking a course through the OU made it easier to learn coding skills in a male-dominated industry.

“There is a fair amount of politics and snobbery in the coding community. It is male-dominated and this has been a problem for females for some time now," said Barrett.

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“Because I took OU remotely there was no one around to question me or say I was doing something the wrong way. I had no peers saying I was an amateur, as I learnt in isolation and developed my skills until I was at a good level.”

According to Barrett, trying to learn to code in a male-dominated environment means there is a high level of competitiveness, which may discourage the few females who want to learn coding skills.

“I totally understand why females might not feel comfortable in coding roles, if someone is constantly criticising you. I’ve been in positions where my skills have been questioned before. You have to be good at what you do and have confidence in your skills to be able to say I’m doing it my way," she said.

“There is a lot of competitiveness in IT and there are lots of nice people too. You have to be able to stand up and say back off if it’s someone who is only trying to prove that they are better than you.”

Barrett said some men do not realise they are undermining female coders in even subtle ways. 

“If you have an honest chat with them about it, then it gets sorted. It is death by a thousand cuts. All of the little criticisms they get to you eventually," she said. 

"When someone does something to your code, or says they have a better way of doing something than you, it chips away at you and contributes to a larger problem.

“Sometimes this doesn’t even just apply to females, but to anyone who doesn’t fit in with the stereotypical developer image. Some developers feel they have to hide away, as their abilities might get questioned.”

Highlighting women in IT

Barrett pointed out that there is a lot of effort from businesses to get more young girls into technology, but a lack of attention for the women who are already in the industry.

She said the industry needs to shift its focus on what is seen as influential and successful in technology to catch the eye of females who do not aspire to be in executive or board level roles.

“There are lots of lists that highlight amazing ladies in tech, but none of them have coding skills and they’re people I can’t relate to," said Barrett.

“Marissa Mayer, for instance, is known as one of the top women in tech because she is the CEO of Yahoo. To me the most inspirational thing about her is that she had a past job at Google as an engineer.

"I don’t want to go down the business management route – personally I want to code. I want a list of women who can build something cool, not women that are considered successful because of their people management skills. The focus needs to be tweaked.”

She added: “Most of the women we're supposed to look up to don’t code. Most of those who want to code don’t want to be managers, nor aspire to be on a board. It makes it difficult to relate to these women, no matter how amazing they may be.”

Barrett said the gender gap is being felt harder in technology than other industries, as it plays such a massive part in everyday life and the design aspects are not reaching women. 

"A new wave of feminism is helping with this though. It is tough and it gets to every woman. I hope this changes before it gets to me," she said.

“Some young women have ambition, but you see what other women have gone through – some of the responses on Twitter towards women in the industry are toxic. It makes you question is my ambition worth it? What happens if I continue? If I continue will I get the same harassment?”

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Good for her! I love hearing of success stories like hers. It's always difficult to overcome the loss of a close family member, but she was able to get herself together and move on, and find something that she loves doing.

This really hit home for me: "I thought there were only a few lucky people in the world that enjoyed their jobs.”

I currently feel exactly that same way, and I hope that one day I can be one of the lucky ones.

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I understand that the subject of this piece is a woman, but more important she's a person who made a choice to put her family first, and then when she was able to get past the crisis they were having, moved forward and continued to learn, and didn't let the small 'bump' in her life derail her.  We need to hear more stories like that in general.

(Although I wonder if her comment about people modifying her code is a reference to people actively sabotaging her code, or issues with merge control.)
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