From seamstress to software developer: A female community helps women take the leap
Ruth Polachek, founder of she codes, says if women focus and persevere they can make up 50% of software developers and triple their salary
Several years ago, earlier in her career, Ruth Polachek was head of the Citibank startup accelerator, immersing into finance and innovation, after working at global investment banks. That’s when she started to realize that there aren’t that many female software engineers.
“It really began as a way for myself and other women to meet other female software engineers,” Polachek told The Times of Israel. “It started as a side project and the community grew and grew and became so big that I had to stop everything else and focus on it.”
That is how she codes came to life, a female developer community founded by Polachek in 2013. Building up the community, it turned into a non-profit organization with a goal for women to make up 50% of software developers in the Israeli high-tech scene. She codes now has over 50,000 female members and is focused on helping women with or without any formal technological education or relevant professional background to break into the high-tech software development job market.
Born to American parents who immigrated to Israel and worked in the tech industry, Polachek studied economics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and then became a proprietary equities trader on Wall Street before working as an investment banker on M&As and IPOs of technology companies at Lehman Brothers.
“I am an entrepreneur who initially started working in finance, but I always wanted to build things,” said Polachek. “And in time, I realized that the tech industry is where things are growing, and where you need to focus if you are interested in entrepreneurship in general, in this day and age.”
Polachek recalled that as she started building the organization about a decade ago, female software engineers made up about 14%, which has grown over the years to 25% and even 28%, depending on the data used.
“That is still not the 50% that we’re going for, but it’s a huge difference,” Polachek remarked.
Women continue to be underrepresented in the Israeli tech ecosystem, accounting for about 34% of the industry’s workforce, according to a 2022 report by Power in Diversity. The findings based on data collected from 650 active Israeli venture-backed companies that employ at least 50 workers in the country showed that, despite a slight annual increase of 0.4% in the representation of women in 2022, male presence still dominates the tech ecosystem. The percentage of women holding technological positions stands at 27.8%, according to the data.
“After a decade of our activities, we are today the largest organization of this magnitude that is focusing on bringing in new female software engineers and we are basically the biggest community of female software engineers,” Polachek said. “We have around 150,000 women on social media in our community.”
However, what Polachek is really proud of is that the organization is not only on social media, but that the main focus is actual events where women working at the top tech companies from Google, Microsoft to Amazon, are coming to give back and teach and enrich other women with their experience. That’s alongside basic and advanced courses for coders that she codes organizes and operates throughout the year. New courses start every quarter and women meet in the evenings once a week to program together at over 45 branches throughout the country.
The 40-year-old entrepreneur believes that there is a social, or cultural reason for the bias against women and minorities.
“But the reason for it is actually not something negative because being in a homogeneous environment is something that really reinforces positive things and that’s why for women to be in a place where they are only women, really strengthens their abilities, because they are not focused on the confusing differences, but only on professionalism,” Polachek said. “People like to hang out with people who are alike and that’s a good thing for learning skills.”
“People tend to try to become like people that they relate to or their role models,” she added.
That’s one of the main reasons, the concept of she codes is built on a framework for learning and programming within a female community and is geared for women from all walks of life. There are dozens of communities of she codes including orthodox and university branches as well as branches in Nazareth.
Most of the software engineering courses offered via she codes are for beginners for entry-level exposure to the tech industry and coding and some are for more advanced engineers who want to have some continued education. The average age of participants is around 30, often women who already started their career, but are maybe considering changing their profession or focus.
“Compared to other communities, we are very open to female participants without any experience and want to be their entry gates for the tech industry,” Polachek said. “You see women who say I used to be a seamstress and I took a course with she codes and ended up being a software engineer, and that is mind-boggling.”
In another story, a woman who had studied computer science but took a 10-year break from the job market to get married and start a family participated in a few courses through she codes and found her way back into the tech community and industry and started to work.
“All the major tech hubs are hosting us and our activities and connecting with us on our mission to have more women in the industry,” said Polachek. “I have to say in some companies, it’s all talk, but some of them are very actively working to achieve the goal and at least help us if not with the specific hiring in their companies they help us engage more women in the tech industry which eventually leads to placements.”
She codes organizes courses taught in Java, basic python, Web, python for programmers, and more hosted at high-tech companies such as Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., Ebay, Intel Haifa, IBM, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Microsoft, as well as around the country’s main universities, including the Technion and Tel Aviv University.
“Many women go on to then get a degree or continue with their education in software engineering, and we are very proud of that,” Polachek said. “Being a programmer is being a lifelong learner, because there are always new technologies coming out.”
Long touted as the growth engine of the economy, the tech sector accounts for around 25% of total income tax revenue and constitutes about 10% of the workforce. At the same time, the country suffers from a severe shortage of skilled tech workers. There are about 32,900 open positions, of which 21,000 are for tech positions, according to the latest Human Capital in Tech 2021-2022 report by the Start-Up Nation Policy Institute and the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA).
“If you look into his potential crisis in the tech industry, it’s time for women to learn and to really improve their skills during this time because companies will continue to want to hire good software engineers,” said Polachek. “They don’t care if they are women or men, they claim they care, but they don’t.”
Efforts by the government to integrate underrepresented communities in the country’s workforce coupled with a shortage of tech talent has helped she codes ink a multi-year joint venture with Israel’s Labor Ministry which has allowed the organization to charge female participants in the courses and activities only a nominal registration fee.
“The reason we had such a fruitful collaboration with the labor ministry, is that we saw the problem the government was facing to try and get 1000s of software engineers into the industry,” Polachek recounted. “Over the past five years through this joint venture, we know of over 6000 women that were placed in jobs as software engineers following the participation in our community and in our organization.”
“There are approximately 100,000 software engineers overall, including men, so we are talking about maybe a third of the women in the industry and we presume all of them have been through our programs.”
Commissioned and funded by the government, Myers JDC Brookdale conducted an impact evaluation study examining the she codes program as a model for promoting the integration of women into the high-tech industry.
“The main impact of the program was on the likelihood of women with no formal technological education or relevant professional background to integrate into the high-tech industry: their probability of integrating into a high-tech company or being appointed to a technological position was 2.3 times higher in the experimental group than in the control group,” the findings of the November 2022 report read. “The impact of the program was found to be significant even when compared with similar programs around the world.”
Over the past decade, Polachek herself has earned her place as one of the 50 most powerful women in Israel by Forbes, was selected as one of the 100 most influential persons in Israel and was named among Israel’s 40 most promising people under 40 by TheMarker Magazine.
“There are enough women around and if we build communities where your best friends are software engineers or aspiring software engineers you are also going to become one – it is just a matter of time,” Polachek said. “If women really make up their mind, focus and persevere they can do anything and triple their salary as software engineers.”
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