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Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack Fights for Women in Tech

The cofounder of LadyCoders wants to even the playing field for female programmers.

By Matthew Halverson January 23, 2013 Published in the February 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Hate the game, not the player. That’s the message behind LadyCoders, an initiative launched in fall 2012 by Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, Liz Dahlstrom, and Lorraine Sawicki to help women land jobs in the male-dominated tech world. Men aren’t the enemy, they argue, but the unconscious biases that marginalize and undervalue the female perspective are. Critics raged that the trio was antifeminist and bowing to a corrupt system rather than working to blow it up, but the ladies raised more than $25,000 via Kickstarter and produced their first two-day seminar last October. This February, LadyCoders will host its second, and Van Vlack says the message is the same: To change the system, you have to start by getting inside. 


I get into trouble for telling the truth. I spent a lot of time as a kid learning and being an intellectual and didn’t spend enough time, maybe, valuing the social lubricant that is courtesy. 

We’re not teaching women how to program. We’re teaching them everything they need to know to get a programming job. And that means grappling with the kind of underlying social biases, the kinds of barriers that they would face in the interviewing process and in their careers that educational initiatives have the luxury of ignoring.  

I don’t blame men—I never have—for the fact that women often find it difficult to get into technology fields. I adore men. I love every last one of them because I tend to be able to communicate better with them. 

More than once the words “I am a badass web developer” have come out of my face during interviews. You have to be uber confident. As a developer, as someone who is actively creating solutions for the kind of social technology that runs our world now, there’s a lot of ego that goes into saying, “I know what’s best for you.” But then you had better be able to back it up.

Programming is puzzles. It’s jigsaw puzzles and games and figuring out the answers to problems that no one’s come up with. Sometimes the problem isn’t that you need to find an answer. Sometimes the problem is that you can’t really define the problem yet. It’s wonderful. It’s awesome. So my character flaw isn’t necessarily that I’m overconfident. It’s probably that I overuse the word awesome when describing what I do for a living.

We knew we were going to get hit by trolls. What I did not expect was that we were going to get hit by people who were deeply angry that we weren’t going far enough, as they saw it. It was painful to hear things like collaborator and ineffectual and You’re not a real feminist.

The basic definition of feminism, as it’s insisted upon everywhere that I’ve ever seen, is a belief that women are equal to men. Under that definition, hell yeah I’m a feminist. I will not assert likeness, though I will assert equality. Sometimes there are things that guys can do better. I mean, my husband smashes the bugs and lifts the heavy stuff in our household.

Moderation is not popular in this society. I mean, did you see the presidential election? We’re in the middle of the battle for women’s place in the technology field. We’re trying to create that coalition in the middle that can create social change while respecting the positions of the radicals on both sides. And it is a deeply uncomfortable position to be in. But you know what? We’ve got more women tech jobs than arguing about it on the Internet ever has. And I’m okay with that.  

The incentives are wrong for promoting women in the corporate, technical hierarchy. The incentive is to get the job done. It’s not to make sure that women are in positions of equality in technology. And I can’t necessarily blame hiring managers for that. So what I’m trying to say to them is, “Consider this differently. Consider that the woman who is applying for this position has a set of skills that makes her tough and able to perceive your issues and problems with a different eye and maybe has solutions that you’ve never come up with before.” 

I’m a total softie for Star Trek. It depicts a better world. It’s something to aspire to. This is a world where sexism doesn’t exist, where no one is hungry and all kids know how to read. Who wouldn’t want to aspire to live in a world like that? Who wouldn’t want to see the kinds of changes in our society that can make something like that possible?

I’m a geek in every way. And I love it. One of the main ways that you can tell someone is a geek is that they have a lot of inside jokes with the other geeks who geek like they geek. I can have an entire conversation with somebody using Star Trek dialogue. And there will be multiple levels to that conversation. We’ll actually be having a conversation about a current event, but the fact that we’re having the conversation with Star Trek dialogue means we’re referencing a rich array of stories that brings life and color to what we’re talking about.

I care so much because I hate waste. And considering the state of the American economy, the waste of female technical talent is a crime. How can I stop and watch as our scientific and technical prowess is being undermined by an unconscious social bias that I can help change? If you want to print anything, print that. 


Published: February 2013

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