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Women in tech: working to boost the numbers


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More women are adding terms like coder and game developer to their resumes, but the industry still has a long way to go to reach gender parity.

Last year, women made up 22 percent of the game developer workforce, double the 11.5 percent of females in the field in 2009, according to a recent study by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

But for women like Elizabeth Canas, the road to a career in technology was less traveled when she was growing up.

“I didn’t even know what technology was!” Canas said.

It was a foreign concept back in the ’90s for a little girl in Colombia, South America, to tinker with computers and software. And as an adult living in Buffalo, once her interest was piqued, the path to success had some curves and bumps.

“When I decided I needed to choose a career, I was like ‘I’m going to be a programmer,’" Canas said. "I thought programming was learning Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint. So at my first programming class I almost had a stroke."

After spending her formative years in New York City, Canas decided it would be easier to financially and academically support her aspirations to merge into the tech world if she moved upstate. She holds New York City’s public school education responsible for keeping its students behind in the industry, and said computer classes weren’t a thing until high school – maybe. Couple the late start with being a female in a male-dominated industry and you get what some women compare to a double-edged sword.

Girl Code

Girl Develop It (GDI), a national non-profit organization, is trying to change that disparity. Through in-person classes offered by chapters around the country, GDI provides opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development. 

The Girl Develop It booth at a college event in Buffalo.

The women are keen to learn from each other’s first-hand experience and build self-confidence in the process.  They also are optimistic and say that with time, the number of women in the industry will improve drastically.

“We have a couple of beginner classes and we have classes that sell out every time we host them, like HTML CSS, Intro to Web Concepts, Intro to JavaScript – so all the basics that you need for pretty much any coding job,” said Lena Levine, founder of GDI’s Buffalo chapter.

Levine created GDI Buffalo in early 2013. She offers scholarships to help members who can’t afford the cost of the typically full-day workshops. The organization also teaches advanced classes, and there are plans to offer more lessons on creating mobile apps and developing games. The team is already seeing the results of their efforts.

“One lady got a job as a junior programmer after taking a series of classes with us,” said Jessica Tornabene, Buffalo chapter co-leader.

Canas is a member of the chapter and said it was a male colleague who told her about GDI after finding the group’s website. She’s relieved that nowadays young girls are being introduced to coding in elementary school, and women no longer have to fear technology.

“A lot of times we focus on the younger generations, but I’m like, ‘What about the women?’” Canas said.

Girl Power

Elouise Oyzon is a professor in the Interactive Games and Media Department at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her daily lessons in game design and development, animation and 2-D modeling have come a long way in the last 15 years. And every year, Oyzon makes it a point to try and encourage more female students to get in the game.

“If we have women who come in, if we have people of color who come in and make games, they will make games that appeal to them and that sort of broadens the conversation,” Oyzon said.

There was a time, Oyzon recalls, when she acted like a self-proclaimed "badass" working in the industry and was often accused of being angry. Looking back, the professor admits she did have a chip on her shoulder.

“[When you’re] the first woman in the situation, the first brown person in the situation, all of a sudden you have to be not just competent but you have to be more than competent, you have to be super, because you’re representing everybody else.”

Oyzon is hopeful but not blind to the fact that Gamergate and its backlash against women in the industry still exists. Canas shares that same tough skin and she doesn’t plan on shedding it any time soon.

“I learned to be very confident and like, ‘Yes, I am a woman. And yes, I am a minority. And yes, you are all men, and for the most part are all white -- and I don’t care!’" Canas said.