A New Women-Only Boot Camp Is Closing the Gender Gap, One Course at a Time

In almost 20 years in web development, Sarah Cullen never worked directly with more than one other female developer at a time. “There just are not enough of us out there,” she said.

Sarah’s experience isn’t unique. The gap between male and female tech professionals is well-known, and is then exacerbated by a lack of female role models and continued support. Without enough strong voices and encouragement, the gender gap just grows bigger.

Female STEM lovers are at a disadvantage—and Sarah believes it’s time to level the playing field. That’s why she’s teaching the first women-only coding boot camp powered by Trilogy Education and the University of Denver (DU).

An opportunity for positive change

Before becoming an instructor, Sarah had a diverse background. Dabbling first in social work—and loving helping people—Sarah then dove into web development, working as a developer across industries from finance to healthcare to technology.

Then she discovered teaching with Trilogy—and never looked back. Having taught coding to co-ed cohorts for almost two years, the idea for a women-only boot camp came unexpectedly.

One of Sarah’s past students had attended an all-female boot camp in California and had high praise for the experience. Inspired by this idea and with the help of her former student, a DU liaison, and the full support of the university, Sarah quickly formed plans for the cohort.

“Initially, I just thought it would be a really awesome thing to do. But I quickly realized this was incredibly important,” Sarah said. “The Colorado Women’s College was around for almost 80 years before it became a dedicated part of DU. With the legacy of educating women, the college was eager to pursue this new endeavor.”

About a month before the course was set to begin, Trilogy and DU hosted a Women’s Coding Preview. What was expected to be a 20-person event ended up attracting close to 40 enthusiastic students-to-be. A few women signed up on the spot.

When the first day of the boot camp rolled around, 25 women were ready and excited to get started—ranging in age from their early 20s to their mid 50s. And the vast significance of the course wasn’t lost on Sarah.

“I was definitely a little nervous going into this course,” Sarah said. “As an instructor in other cohorts, I struggled a bit with imposter syndrome, but now I felt pressure as a female mentor and I knew this cohort would have its unique challenges.”

Turning hesitation into confidence

Though faced with doubts, Sarah rose to the occasion—using her weaknesses as strengths.

“When I first became an instructor, I was terrified of what would happen if my code broke or if I didn’t know the answer to a question,” Sarah said. “But the first time it happened, I realized how valuable it was for the students.”

Her students are able to see how she handles and overcomes different challenges, always learning and improving her knowledge. Coding isn’t about sunshine and roses—and it’s rarely predictable.

The biggest difference in the women-only cohort, though, is how she speaks to her students.

“I really want to make sure that these women know that they deserve to be here,” Sarah said. “Part of that means teaching them that to be successful, they need to build their strength and confidence in themselves.”

Sarah is a relatable mentor, opening up about her own personal experiences, specifically her self-doubts. “I remind them that they’re not alone, that there is a growing network of strong female coders that they’re contributing to,” she said. “These women are the future of the industry.”

Making an impact

Though only a month into the course, Sarah has loved her experience teaching this group of women, and she credits her talented and inspiring students.

One student, Nancy Butterfield, made a memorable impression even before the boot camp began, when she excitedly attended the coding preview event. But her journey to coding began long before that day.

Pursuing code in the early 1980s, Nancy couldn’t find a job, something she attributes firmly to the gender bias at the time. “I took C++ at the Colorado Women’s College at DU, seeking an Applied Computer BA, but this was not the right time,” she said. She ended up exploring different, non-coding pursuits instead.

Twenty years later she got an email from DU about the women-only coding boot camp. “My heart stopped,” Nancy said. “I thought, could this be true? Could I relearn coding and make a better life for my family?”

Now, Nancy is back on campus at the Colorado Women’s College nearly thirty years later—and this time, she feels like she can finally build a career around coding and inspire other women to do the same.

Olivia Fontanese is also using the boot camp to make positive change, just in a different way. Fresh out of college, she joined the course to bring a revolutionary idea to life—a birth control app free of financial barriers to help all women stay sexually healthy.

For over a year and half, Olivia has been working on the app by teaching herself to code, but she was making little headway. “Then, a former professor suggested the boot camp. I attended the informational session the very next day,” Olivia said.

And the rest was history. “With Sarah teaching us, I learned more about CSS in that class than I had after months of struggling to learn independently, through online courses or through attending other school’s programming classes,” she said. Olivia wants to help women, and the boot camp is facilitating the way.

“Learning about the backgrounds and the goals of my students brought me to tears,” Sarah said. “I’m just really excited to teach these women that they deserve to be here, and that their individual strengths are what will help them succeed.”

Sarah and Trilogy are using this first women-only cohort as a testing ground for more women’s only classes to come. Relying on key data from the course, Trilogy will continue to adapt and improve upon the curriculum, optimizing it to help students succeed.

The future of women in tech is bright—they just need strong mentors and support to dominate the field.

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