Institutional Barriers for Women of Color at Code Schools

In an industry where black, Latina, and indigenous womyn make up less than 3% of the field, we know that walking through those code school doors, we will be outliers.

by Anonymous Author on February 24th, 2015

If attending a code school can be life-changing for the average student, imagine what the prospect would mean to womyn of color. Since our communities are among the most impoverished, we stand to gain the most from the flexible, high-paying jobs of today’s tech empire. But in an industry where black, Latina, and indigenous womyn make up less than 3% of the field, we know that walking through those code school doors, we will be outliers. Shawna Scott’s recent piece in Model View Culture, The Code School Industrial Complex, discusses the adversity and risks that all students of code schools face. For womyn of color (WoC), that chance of adversity and risk is magnified.

Having seen the need to get more womyn into tech, some for-profit as well as not-for-profit code schools have begun to target womyn to fill their classroom seats. The schools range from co-ed to womyn’s-only classrooms, and they might even offer scholarships or special lending programs.

Unfortunately, for many of the same reasons that WoC don’t make it into the interview rooms of tech companies, we often don’t make it into the interview rooms of these tuition-free or scholarship-providing code schools. We can trace this back to the pipeline problem, imposter syndrome, and the reality that many of us are caretakers who have people that rely on our time and our income.

The Interview Room

Photo of an empty boardroom.

Photo CC-BY reynermedia, filtered.

Much like the job market, tuition-free or scholarship-providing code schools conduct rigorous interview processes, often involving some form of technical assessment as well as screening for classroom or culture fit. Although these panels might include a larger percentage of womyn than is customary of the tech sphere, seldom will you see a person of color. In my personal experience, I interviewed with a panel comprised entirely of white people.

Hidden or unconcious bias has been widely written about as it concerns women interviewing in predominantly male tech spaces, but less so when it concerns WoC interviewing in predominantly white tech spaces. An interview panel comprised exclusively of white men and women draws out the racial divisions that are ever-present in our psyche as WoC: on one end of the table, the oppressor, on the other end, the oppressed.

Even though tech giants such as Google have already admitted that hidden bias is a contributing factor to the lack of women in tech roles at their corporation, it can be difficult for interviewers to admit that they are subject to unconscious bias. For WoC, this bias works doubly against us as we are of a marginalized gender and race. If we aren’t meticulously mindful of our physical appearance, the interviewers might unconsciously reduce us to a fetishized sex object. If we don’t use enough SAT vocabulary words, or we let the accent of our heritage language slip through, we risk being being pegged as uneducated. During these interviews, instead of walking onto a platform where our strengths can shine, we’re walking onto a minefield where everything about ourselves is a trigger for bias.

Educational institutions are not under pressure to take into account the effect that these interview configurations can have on the interviewees. Rather than carrying the burden of responsibility for the alarming lack of racial diversity in these environments, these institutions can shield themselves from responsibility under the guise that they have given equal opportunities to all of the candidates that pass through the interview room.

For the WoC on the other end of the table, what could have been an opportunity to showcase our range of abilities and competence becomes a stressful ordeal where imposter syndrome shadows our potential to prove ourselves worthy of the opportunity in front of us. Not only do we fail to see ourselves reflected in the industry we are trying to break into, but our everyday oppressions become painfully palpable when the gatekeepers/interviewers are also our oppressors.

Classroom Dynamics

Desks and chairs in a classroom.

Photo CC-BY frankjuarez, filtered.

If we’re lucky enough to make it past the barriers of the interview room and into one of the few tuition-free programs that exist, we are likely to face a harsh reality in the classroom. These programs, under the goodwill assumption that providing a scholarship and having a womyn’s-only classroom will level the playing field for students, fail to take into account the integration of students from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Although this tactic might work if the classroom was a homogenous array of educated, white middle class womyn, the model fails as soon as you introduce a marginalized subgroup.

Much like black and Latinx students navigating life at Ivy Leagues, it’s clear that the playing field will disproportionately benefit those students with higher socioeconomic status who possess, and ultimately benefit, from whiteness. Navigating white spaces as an “other” can be an impactful and even damaging experience; feelings of alienation and imposter syndrome are quick to set in. Where womyn’s-only schools attempt to assuage the imposter syndrome aggravated by having male classmates, they fail at preventing the rapid onset of this destructive frame of mind in WoC.

To my knowledge and in my experience, these organizations are only prepared to handle the sensibilities of white womyn in tech, and as is often the case, the issues of WoC are treated as an afterthought.  As always, the burden of true diversity work falls on the people who experience the most hardship as a result of these inequitable spaces. This often means that simultaneously to learning an entirely new craft, WoC also have to champion for equality in the classroom. We are the ones who have to point out that there have been no guest speakers of color. We are the ones who have to point out that some of us have family who are financially dependant on us. We are the the ones who must bear the burden of being the bullseye for the micro and macroaggressions of both men and women. There is no guarantee that we will benefit from this undertaking toward equity, and we run the risk of creating a situation in which the host school becomes defensive about their practices, and WoC face fear of retaliatory action.

Managing Aggressions

Blurry image of a person yelling and pulling their hair.

Photo CC-BY Porsche Brosseau, filtered.

The most difficult to manage variable in the experience of a WoC at a code school is her peers and faculty. Since students and faculty are often majority white, educated, and middle to upper class, it’s not uncommon for us to be the target of macro and microaggressions. Whitesplaining (just like mansplaining, but for white women) and microaggressions that can become a daily occurrence are difficult to point out, and very common in an environment where in-training coders are constantly working together.

If we decide to take on the role of activist, and we successfully manage to coordinate a privilege awareness workshop, something a group of classmates and I managed to achieve, we are at risk of bearing the burden of a classroom full of white guilt and/or racist resentment. In my personal experience, it was no easy feat to have a qualified professional come into the classroom and conduct a privilege awareness workshop. Once the workshop was complete, the overwhelming flood of white tears and resentment nearly drowned the WoC in the room who were looking for a safer, more comfortable place to learn a new trade.

There is no shortage of aggressions from authority figures either. I’ve had one such authority figure interrupt me during a practice interview, make an assumption about my heritage language, and begin asking me a question unrelated to my technical interview in broken Spanish. The white man in question decided that he would rather grill me about the intricacies of my heritage language than assess my skills as a developer. Although this is a clear aggression, smaller and more difficult to pinpoint microaggressions can also be felt from administration.

It’s often difficult for the administrative bodies of these code schools, although they may have the best of intentions, to understand the needs and concerns of WoC when they have no such person in their ranks. Our concerns are interpreted as the needs of individuals rather than the needs of a collective group of underrepresented and marginalized people in tech and in society as a whole. These instances, and many others, serve to drive home the point that not only do we feel as if we don’t belong, but these white spaces treat us like we don’t belong. We are often insulted with subtle jabs, and any mention or complaint of our grievances, from classmate to authority figure, is fodder for white tears and defensiveness.


Photo of the author sitting on a couch with a laptop.

The author (pictured on the left) talking about Latinidad and coding at the University of Florida.

Diversifying tech is no easy task. The  lazy path is one where middle to upper class white women are ushered in as the face of diversity. Unless intentional steps are taken to address this lapse in accessibility, recruitment, and classroom integration, this soft approach to diversifying the industry will continue to exclude one of the most marginalized groups: womyn of color.

The first step toward the right path is one where these institutions intentionally seek out the voices of WoC in tech with the goal of learning and understanding where the barriers lie. Our voices need to not only be heard, but also amplified and given the rightful authority in these educational spaces. Prospective and current students need to be able to see people like them in interview rooms and in classroom podiums. We need to know that at every level of these organization, from boardrooms to HR, there are WoC who understand our needs and concerns and can advocate for them in a meaningful way. The value of this kind of presence is immeasurable.

If these efforts to diversify tech are serious about promoting lasting change within the industry, they must also invest time and resources into creating awareness about equity in the industry.  It’s important that students and faculty are equipped with the language to empathize with the struggles of those around them. Although one-time diversity training workshops can be beneficial, they don’t provide the right time or space for a deep understanding of the mechanisms of oppression. Code schools are already toeing the line of avant garde in the tech education industry, so why not take the extra step and weave anti-racist, anti-oppressive training into their curriculums as an effort to promote lasting change in the industry?

Most importantly, these organizations need to make an accountable commitment to inclusiveness and true diversity. Case studies show that the road to diversity is rooted in accountability. These educational organizations must make themselves accountable by designating specialized departments that are independent from the organization to oversee student and faculty recruitment as well as classroom culture. They must create clear and accessible channels for students to address racial aggressions without fear of retaliation or alienation in the classroom.

Not only can these steps be the start to creating an equitable learning space for WoC, but they can also mark the beginning of truly shifting tech culture. I commend the few code schools who have taken it upon themselves to challenge patriarchy by demanding avenues for womyn to break into tech, and now I urge those institutions to challenge white supremacy with the same vigor.