On Friday, in a tiny, private room in an airy co-working space in New York City, I spoke to NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and NASA CTO for IT Deborah Diaz about coding, science and the challenges women face in male-dominated sectors.
“When I was young, it never occurred to me to be an astronaut,” Coleman said. “I met Dr. Sally Ride in college, and it changed my life. It wasn’t that I thought, oh, I should do that. I thought maybe that could be me. Maybe I could try to do that.”
We were at Civic Hall for NASA’s first-ever Data Bootcamp. The Bootcamp, with a focus on 'women in data,' was a day-long, panel-filled event that encouraged female and amateur coders to participate in NASA’s fourth annual International Space Apps Challenge. The Space Apps hackathon launched on Saturday, and lasts throughout the weekend. “Two years ago,” Diaz said, “New York had the highest concentration of women at the hackathon. We didn’t see that momentum across the country or across the globe… what we’re trying to do is really give that self confidence to people who might not have been exposed to that before.” The bootcamp was livestreamed, so people around the world could watch and listen throughout the day.
In New York, a crowd of mostly young, mostly female participants spent the day listening to panelists who talked about their first hackathons, the importance of storytelling, and problem solving. Olivia Ross, 13, spoke for the organization Black Girls CODE during the first panel. Ross said she first became interested in tech when she was 11. “I found a course on Code Academy and took it. I finished it and sat there for hours,” Ross later signed up for a Black Girls CODE event in Brooklyn — her first hackathon.
Female leaders spoke openly about the types of hesitations that hold women back. “I am a NASA astronaut who has flown in space three times. I can learn anything. But I don’t know anything about coding,” Coleman told me. “I think there’s a real tendency for women to feel that way. I would guarantee you that I probably know more about coding than I think I do,” and, referring to her earlier claim to coding ignorance, “One of my guy colleagues would never have made that statement I just made.”
Another panelist, Leslie Birch, implored listeners not to walk back their accomplishments. “Don’t say, ‘I don’t know anything about that,’ because now you are representing women… make sure you rep well for women, make sure you’re telling people what your skills are.”
Audience members used the intimate setting as an opportunity to talk about challenges they face. One asked how to get people interested in computational linguistics, a little-known, male-dominated field of study: “What are some suggestions for a young, black woman who is part of a [Space App] challenge that not too many people are familiar with, that would help me convince an audience that my idea is a sufficient one?” Jennifer W. Lopez, of Wisenn & Co., jumped in: “You are important, your ideas are just as important as anyone else’s in the room.”
Another audience member, a volunteer at a Bronx Science robotics club, described how difficult it is to get girls to join. Elizabeth Caudle, from Girls Who Code, responded: “It’s very hard, you’re working against decades of institutionalized sexism in the tech industry. Emphasizing that you’re solving real-world problems and teamwork really attracts girls to computer science and robotics… [show them] that it’s fun, that it’s social. It’s easier if you try to get a group of girls together."
The bootcamp explored the support system many women described as essential to their success. “What made it easier for me,” said Coleman, “is that I have a mom that brought me up to think that I could be anything I wanted to be.” Mozilla designer Jessica Klein mentioned that her mother taught her to build a website, and Ross said her sister was the one who told her about, and encouraged her to get in touch with, Black Girls CODE.
Panelist and 2014 Space App Challenge winner Niki Selken told me, "I come from San Francisco where it's very locked down, you have all the tech giants there. It felt like there was a very high barrier to entry in terms of tech and gender." She added that at last year's Space Apps Challenge, "It was very intimidating, walking in as a woman in a room full of men… this is a much safer-feeling space, this event creates community for the [participating] women. Tomorrow, we'll have each others backs, we'll smile, we'll recognize each other. I think that'll help first-time hackers."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.