Tina Lee (pictured above with her daughter Lexie) had the idea for MotherCoders, a tech orientation program for moms, after a giant meltdown one night.
Wanting to brush up on her tech skills while working for the California State Controller’s Office, Lee was coding in the middle of the night between breastfeeding sessions when the reality of juggling motherhood and a career hit her.
“I thought, ‘This is so hard. How are other moms doing this?’ ” she says.
And let’s not even talk about pumping breast milk at workshops. One time, while everyone else was networking, she was sitting on a mattress in a filthy, freezing office, pumping alone. A scenario, she reasoned, she couldn’t just walk out and complain about.“Even though so many people are parents, because of the way we’ve structured our workplace in the U.S. we can’t even talk about it without repercussion. So we proceed like it’s not happening. There’s this whole collective denial,” Lee says. “It makes it so hard for moms, especially.”
A Stanford graduate, former tech recruiter, self-proclaimed politics nerd, and mother of two girls, Lee is on a mission to make sure moms are included when we talk about diversity in tech.
Why diversity in tech matters
It’s old news that white men dominate the industry and communities of color are woefully underrepresented when it comes to hiring – not to mention women currently only hold just 26% of computing jobs. We also know there are a ton of programs popping up to help change those numbers – Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It, and CodeChix, to name a few.
What people aren’t talking about, Lee says, is that over 80% of girls and women in the U.S. will become moms by the time they’re 44 if they aren’t already. And then what?
“If we don’t help moms, or women in general, gain a foothold in this new economy that’s knowledge and innovation-based, we’re just going to recreate all the structures we have now. We’ll have another generation where the men own industry, and we are the help,” she says.
MotherCoders is Lee’s way of ensuring that the projected 1.4 million unfulfilled tech jobs in 2020 will land in the hands of competent, educated, and willing women who happen to be mothers. Since we now know that moms do indeed rule the Internet, she says, we’d be crazy to not give them a chance to help create it.
So every Saturday for eight weeks, an intimate group of women go to NextSpace Potrero Hill, a co-working space in San Francisco, where Lee breaks down for them the seemingly scary and nebulous world of tech.
Aside from learning about basic web development and general industry knowledge, students also get schooled on hot topics like user experience, design thinking, and big data from volunteer professional women. These women come from a variety of fields – technology design, product management, marketing, entrepreneurship, etc. – and many are moms themselves.
At the end, students walk away with a website they’ve built from scratch to show potential employers, a roadmap for a new career, and hopefully the gall to go after what they want.
“Some of it isn’t even tech. It’s giving moms the confidence to proceed in this new economy no matter what job they want to do,” Lee says.The first MotherCoders pilot was held back in the spring of 2014. Even though it was in the Bay Area, nearly 100 moms from all over the world wanted in. (Lee ended up only taking six moms, believing that what makes learning so successful is the face-to-face component, and hosted a second cohort in the fall.) Part of what’s so appealing about MotherCoders is the on-site childcare, although it’s capped at 36 months due to facility restraints.
“We have on-site childcare because it just makes the moms feel so much better that their kids are right there being take care of. If you go need to see your kid, go. If you need to nurse, go,” Lee says. “Childcare is a huge problem we as a culture have to solve because we’re sidelining so many women from participating in the workforce.”
Moreover, Lee argues, moms doing tech now equals kids doing tech sooner than later.
“There’s a STEM piece to this. These moms are graduating from MotherCoders with the ability to teach their own kids the skills they learned,” she says. “This kind of in-home role modeling, where kids get to see their mothers engaging with technology, might just inspire them to become technologists themselves.”
Lee set out to create a space where moms are nurtured and understood while they on ramp to a career in tech, and so far it’s been mostly successful.
“We’re proving that moms are an untapped talent pool who can help create new products and services and bring greater innovation to the marketplace,” Lee says.
How moms fare in MotherCoders
Some moms have struggled to break through, however. One woman met with blank stares at an interview for a web development bootcamp when, in response to a question about her proudest accomplishments, she told them she’d built three websites while pregnant with her third child.
But many of the 13 graduates have thrived. They’re starting businesses, switching careers, creating mobile apps, attending web development and design bootcamps, and more.
Carmen, for one, was drawn to MotherCoders after birthing her first son, nicknamed General. A single mom and back end Ruby developer from Paraguay, Carmen had been out of work for a year when she decided to forego job hunting to be with him – not anticipating how isolating it would be.
“I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with my colleagues and friends in the community. All my friends are single programmers. Most of them are guys. I needed to be around people like me who know what I’m dealing with, that I don’t have the time to do open source code or go to conferences or even read much,” she says. “When I heard other women at MotherCoders talking about that, I felt better.”
The program for Carmen was also a refresh of sorts. As she’s mainly a back end developer, she was forced to brush up on her front skills for the final required website project. After MotherCoders, when General was six months old, Carmen felt more focused and started actively seeking work. Their survival were dependent on it. Again, she was surprised at how motherhood and tech seemed to struggle to coexist.
“When I started looking for a job, I realized people were kind of freaked out that I had been out of the workspace for so long on maternity leave. But in my free time I had been teaching myself, working on a business plan, studying online, going to MotherCoders…not just taking care of the baby,” she says. “The rest of the world didn’t see that.”
Ultimately, however, Carmen was able to show that she had been doing her best to keep up. Inspired and motivated by the speakers at MotherCoders, Carmen landed a job at a company where she now works on the consumer team, using her front end skills.
Despite giving women like Carmen a sense of community and confidence, Lee still has days where the deeper challenges beyond her control seem insurmountable: America’s division on its opinion of working moms, the loneliness of being a mom, the loneliness of being a woman in tech, the oft reluctance of the industry to let others in, and pervasive ageism.
She worries about about not raising enough money to sustain the program, and not having the right connections to meet the right funders and donors. She considers the possibility of going back to work and does her best to live with the uncertainty. All feelings she’s not afraid to admit to herself and her girls, Lexie and Ellie.
“We’re normalizing to them what it means to create social change and actively dismantle inequality. This is what it looks like on a daily basis,” she says. “Sometimes I’m crying because I’m so frustrated and dejected and misunderstood.”
Still, Lee remains determined.
“I was raised by my grandmother who worked in a sweatshop,” she says. “I’ve learned resilience, a strong work ethic, street smarts, deep empathy for the oppressed, and the ability to see, feel, taste, analyze, and hack oppression like whoa.”
Expansion is crucial. Lee would love more staff on board to not only build up MotherCoders in San Francisco, but take it to more cities one day. Because moms everywhere want in. Bad.
Until then, Lee continues to be a teacher and mom to other techies and her own two girls. In her view, the next generation’s economic security depends on it.
“I hope to create a more socially just world so that my girls – all our kids, really – can be freer to be who they’re meant to be,” she says. “And make no mistake, I’m hoping they’ll take up the cause in their own way.”