23 Code Street is nestled inside a London building with a nondescript facade, also housing a company offering AI solutions and the headquarters of an online news site. But while its appearance may be unassuming, the organisation is taking on one of the biggest problems in tech - the glaring lack of female developers and IT professionals.
The company was cofounded by Anisah Osman Britton, a young entrepreneur who has been concerned by the gender disparity in tech since she started her own tech company at just 19 years old.
Business minded from a young age, she spurned the opportunity to apply for university in favour of taking up business internships dotted around the globe (including Tanzania, Kenya and India) before returning to launch her own. “Starting a company and working in a tech company, you suddenly realise how sometimes you're the only woman with any understanding of what's going on,” she says. The enterprise, PocketMUni.com, matched students with odd jobs like gardening or translation, and won Osman Britton the Young Entrepreneur Festival in 2012.
After this, she became Operations Director at The Bakery, an accelerator that matches big business with promising startups offering technological and business solutions. Here, as well, she noticed that she generally occupied the role of ‘token woman’. “There was never that voice that said, ‘Hang on a second, what about the women?’” But always acting the voice of reason can take its toll. “That was always me, and it started to be like, ‘Oh, she's such a feminist,’” says Osman Britton.
However, she says her employers were receptive to her feedback on this front. At just 24, she’s already a seasoned ambassador of greater workplace equality, overseeing an increase in the number of female tech founders The Bakery worked with during her time there.
Her position in the tech world sparked her interest in coding, which immediately appealed to her. Following her interest, her superiors at The Bakery agreed to send her on a coding course. Although accustomed to the male dominated environments of the startup accelerator, here, Osman Britton experienced feeling blatantly ‘other’. Despite her passion for coding and creating, Osman Britton felt the environment inhospitable for both her and other women, in an uncomfortably gendered respect.
“I felt like every time I asked a question it was considered stupid, and then the following week a man asked the same question and it'd be like, ‘Oh, yes, that's a great question,’” says Osman Britton. “It felt judgemental and it felt really competitive.” Hardly surprising, then, that Osman Britton was one of the only women who remained by the end of the course.
This aggressively competitive atmosphere is something that can put women off not just coding classes, but tech culture as a whole. But a culture is not only enforced by a core of reigning values - in tech’s case, ego, competition and hierarchy, it’s also supported by the social norms layered on top.
This includes events that cater for one particular caricature - the hooded figure staying up for all-night hackathons, subsisting on beer and pizza, and shunning social contact.
“I think that culture is a big problem. The fact that all the events happen at night time and they're all around beer and alcohol,” says Osman Britton. “It's like, ‘Hang on, what about if you have a family? Or you have a partner, or you don't drink? What if you have hobbies?'”
Using her experience at the coding class to inform everything she didn’t want in her own classroom, Osman Britton directed her energy into creating the exact opposite environment for her students.
Where there was competition, judgement and ego, here there is openness, accommodation and support. It’s the anti-tech bro experience for the people who aren’t catered to by typical coding classes. And it’s perhaps not a coincidence that Osman Britton has chosen an all-female environment to ensure this culture thrives.
“It was about creating a place that was for people like me, that wanted to be fun, and wanted food that was healthy, that wanted to ask the stupid questions, or obvious questions, and not be judged for it,” says Osman Britton.
Her fledgling business graduated from the hipster enclaves of Hackney Wick to Shoreditch, before settling in the current offices, located in Clerkenwell. All the classes are held there, with no more than 14 people seated around the long, rectangular table.
But who is the typical student of 23 Code Street? “They come on the course because they're like you or like me. They work in journalism, marketing, or operations, or work with technical people all the time,” says Osman Britton. “How do you have a conversation with those people? How do you communicate your ideas effectively, and how do you understand their ideas? It's kind of lost in translation.” Mums have also been enrolled, and the average age currently sits around the mid 30s.
After Osman Britton’s experience in a class of 40, they limit the class size, and have seen through eight different cohorts of students. They currently offer a 12-week Web Development Foundation course, as well as an evening workshop focusing on practical advice for women looking to get into tech.
This summer, they are also launching a webinar course that will provide two hours of tuition a week over a live video link, also available on demand. This will increase the accessibility of the course further, removing the barrier of both cost and location.
But it’s not just women in the UK. 23 Code Street also helps women in India gain invaluable computing skills. Osman Britton is part Indian and attended school in India for two years. After weighing up how the organisation could make the biggest contribution within budget constraints and in the shortest timeframe, Osman Britton decided - rather than start an initiative from the ground up - to develop a social arm for the organisation, where 10-15 percent of funds are funnelled towards increasing skills in the women who need them. They have chosen to collaborate with already established organisations such as rehabilitation or ‘get into work’ programmes, and are currently working with around 20 women from each of three organisations.
And while their UK classes focus on coding, their goal in India right now is to begin from a more basic level, teaching simple skills such as how to use a laptop, given the reduced level of technical skills in the communities they are working with. But they plan to work with the same women over time, eventually aiming to lead up to coding tutorials.
But why is training women in tech such an important job? Osman Britton notes that the problem of the male-dominated tech industry is multi-faceted - not simply that workforces lack diversity, but also that any products and services that emerge from this homogenous petri dish are typically developed with a single type of user in mind.
“Most of the time it's unintentional - they just don't think about it. When you've got four white men in a room building something, they're not always going to remember that, hey, there are women who maybe this doesn't work for," says Osman Britton. "I left to basically try and find a way of creating some diversity in the tech scene, so that we could find products and services that actually worked for everyone.”
It’s not just gender diversity that Osman Britton is championing, she is also an advocate of accessible development when it comes to coding. She points out the lack of accommodation made for people who are hard of sight or hearing by most websites, or the lack of catering to people from less technologically advanced countries who are viewing ‘bare bones’ HTML in place of the fancier bits of coding that appear on our iPhone screens.
But what needs to change to achieve the equal representation that is so desperately needed? Some of Osman Britton’s advice targets workplace cultures which can apply to other industries too, highlighted in books such as Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace.
“I think we have to get rid of this ego and this idea of hierarchy, so that people actually flourish in their jobs,” says Osman Britton. “You can certainly have a boardroom meeting and the CEO doesn't have to be the person who says everything. Or, the CEO can actually stop men from speaking over women. That's when stuff starts to change. I've been in rooms where a woman will say something, it's ignored, a man will repeat it and it's heard. Actually, the person who's heading up that meeting could have said, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. Let her speak.’”
Another reason for tech’s gender imbalance Osman Britton points to is the lack of role models for young girls, compounded by misinformation from schools that still emphasise the need for mathematics skills to go into areas like computing. It stems from the one-dimensional male image that dominates our conceptions of who is suited to tech.
“If younger girls see [women in tech’s] stories and say, ‘She's cool, she owns a pair of really nice heels, I can be that person too.’ I think that's really important - that idea of what someone looks like. You then envision what you are, right?” says Osman Britton.
“All the women you see are wearing hoodies and jeans, which is fine and good. But what if you're a girly girl and you like heels and makeup? And there are women like that in the industry. It's just, their stories aren't told.”
It's imperative that the tech industry starts making greater strides when it comes to accommodating people from a multiplicity of backgrounds, gender and racial identities. As technology becomes embedded in every facet of our existence, it’s vital that non-white-males are involved in building the systems, products and platforms of tomorrow. And what better place to start affecting change than at the building blocks - with code?