Digital technologies—mobile phones, computers, and the Internet—are reshaping our world. But to leverage this transformation, women and men will need to have the right mix of skills. Coding bootcamps, a type of rapid skills training program, have emerged as one approach to filling the gap.
Yet little is known about what works. In response, the World Bank Group developed Decoding Bootcamps, an initiative that evaluates the impact of coding bootcamps, with a focus on youth employment in emerging markets. Impact evaluation results from Lebanon, Colombia, and Kenya are forthcoming, but one important lesson has already become clear: To attract and retain women, bootcamps need a reboot.
With the support of the Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality, teams working on innovation and entrepreneurship, social inclusion, and gender equality have come together to design and test the impact of a different approach: coding bootcamps centered on the needs of women.
As groundwork, we set out to learn from providers who are trying to achieve this goal. Their experiences highlight three ways in which ICT skills training can attract, retain and help women thrive.
1. Use the right recruitment strategy to engage women.
Imagery that is overly combative, competitive or hyper-individualistic can discourage women from applying. Instead of inviting applicants to become “coding ninjas” or “warriors,” , and solve challenges in one’s community. For example, Code to Inspire emphasizes how learning to code can empower Afghan women economically, especially through online freelancing work and digital entrepreneurship.
Along with shifting the marketing narrative, Code to Inspire strives to foster family and community support. When recruiting students, the team host open houses that enable family members and the local community to visit the workspace and speak to instructors. The idea is that building trust helps to tackle restrictive gender norms.
Another strategy that bootcamp providers use is the ‘role model effect.’ Programs profile female students or showcase women who have broken barriers in STEM (for example, consider Mae Jemison or Grace Hopper) to disrupt the prevailing notion that coding is a masculine activity.
2. Fight attrition with thoughtful program design.
Among many other constraints, care responsibilities and a lack of transportation options can limit women’s ability to stay in an intensive skills training program. To reduce dropout rates, Laboratoria connects mothers to publicly provided childcare services in Chile. And for those who struggle with the cost of transportation, Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle-based bootcamp, offers subsidies linked to public transit options.
Having the confidence to succeed is critical, but some women may not recognize their full potential. In fact, providers report that female students often drop out due to a lack of confidence despite objective metrics demonstrating high performance. While there is no silver bullet, some bootcamps try to provide validation by showcasing their trainees’ skills and achievements. For instance, hackathons allow students to demonstrate their skills to the local tech community and build professional networks in the process. Programs have also found that on-site counselors and female instructors are particularly effective.
3. Create linkages to mentors, networks, and the job market to help women thrive.
At Hackbright Academy, mentors support women as they seek to refine and apply their skills. The San Francisco engineering school assigns at least two mentors (either female or male) to each student and requires mentors and mentees to meet for an hour per week. Students practice their interviewing skills and receive professional guidance from a vetted pool of software engineers at leading tech companies.
Accompanying structured mentoring with broader efforts to build professional networks gives students access to new opportunities and valuable insights about the tech sector. However, networking sometimes comes with unintended consequences, like sexual harassment. To limit the risks, a few programs opted to host their own networking events and hackathons with trusted contacts in the ecosystem.
Not surprisingly, establishing linkages to the labor market can be a game changer for women. When programs provide job placement support, women are more likely to overcome some of the numerous barriers to entry, such as implicit and explicit biases or regressive gender stereotypes.
Finding ways to support women once they are employed can also help them thrive. For example, creating and maintaining online spaces and social media channels provides students with a supportive peer network. In Colombia, for example, graduates from Cymetria stayed in touch and eventually started businesses together.
So far, . There is still a lot to learn about how to make these programs more accessible and relevant to women, but the team is already working to translate these insights into action. Many of these measures will be implemented and tested in collaboration with partners in Kenya, Colombia, and Pakistan.
The hope is that, armed with this information, coding bootcamps can ensure that the exclusion of women that we often witness in the real world is no longer replicated in the digital one.
The authors would like to thank Danielle Robinson for her invaluable research contributions to the Coding Bootcamps for Female Digital Employment activity.