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Empowering Women in Tech 

Photo: Aleksandra Kossowska www.poleczki.art

Interview with Magda Niedźwiecka-Pruszkowska, a Co-founder and main coordinator of the girls.js initiative.

Sigma IT Poland had the opportunity to support the girls.js workshop, a nationwide initiative that empowers women in tech, which was held on 6th April 2024 in Gdańsk. “Certified Technical Writer. Technical Copywriter. Empowering Women in Tech. Yoga Teacher.” This is how Magda Niedźwiecka-Pruszkowska, the co-founder and main coordinator of girls.js, introduces herself on her LinkedIn profile.

The Beginnings

Sigma IT Poland: Where did the idea for creating the girls.js workshops come from?

Magda Niedźwiecka-Pruszkowska: Girls.js was created entirely by chance, as often happens in life. Eight years ago, I was a freshly graduated recipient of a several-month scholarship for aspiring female programmers. The goals of this initiative were like those of girls.js, except that they taught backend technologies and placed greater emphasis on skill development, with less focus on comfort and a sense of security in the learning process. I left feeling that programming is not just a profession but a useful way of thinking, no matter what you decide to do. I began to look around to see if there was a similar initiative promoting frontend learning among women. It turned out that such an initiative did not exist!

THE JOURNEY

What was the journey from idea to realization like?

I shared this revelation with my husband, a JavaScript programmer, and our friends. It took us six months to turn our idea into a reality. During this time, we managed to inspire several sponsors (mostly our employers) with our vision, prepared our first training material, and attended meetups and conferences, seeking help and feedback. It was a process of testing our idea’s originality and viability. But to our surprise, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. We conducted our first workshops for a test group in Warsaw in November 2016. I was apprehensive about the turnout, but to my delight, the concept was well-received and gained momentum.

Nationwide initiative

How did it happen that girls.js workshops started taking place all over Poland?

After those first workshops, female programmers from other cities contacted me, expressing their willingness to help and collaborate. They had already switched careers, knew its associated challenges, and wanted to share their experience. This way, the initiative gradually spread across Poland. And again, there was no deliberate strategy behind it, just a series of coincidences and heartfelt enthusiasm. Currently, girls.js teams operate in several locations. Workshops under the girls.js brand have taken place 36 times in 12 cities. Some cities had one workshop, while others had several. We are strong because of the community’s power and the wonderful local teams, as the Warsaw team wouldn’t be able to organize workshops in a new city every few weeks on their own.

Who are the girls.js workshops aimed at?

The answer is short: women and individuals identifying as female. Men are welcome at girls.js but in the role of mentors. However, the workshops themselves are only for women. Boys have many other learning opportunities, especially since, from a young age, they are encouraged, consciously or not, to pursue STEM or engineering fields.

What message do you want to convey to the women participating in the girls.js workshops?

I want them to dare to try and see if JavaScript and programming are for them – there won’t be a better place or time, and thanks to our partners, the workshops are free. You risk nothing. With us, you can ask any questions; if you do not know something, no one will send you to Google, and no one will mock you. Moreover, we don’t measure our success by the number of female programmers entering the IT industry with our help. With us, there is no such pressure.

What, then, do the girls.js workshops offer?

Our actual “product” is not the JavaScript workshops but giving women a sense of agency, power, and strength and creating a safe space to learn and develop. You stepped out of your comfort zone, created your code, and broke the stereotype of a polite, humanistic girl—bravo. That’s what it’s all about. The decision to continue learning is yours. If, after our workshops, you decide that programming is not your path, that’s also completely OK.

TYPICAL DAY AT GIRls.js workshops

Can you tell me about a typical day during the girls.js workshops?

There’s no typical day. The workshops can last a whole day, two days, a day and a half, or two hours if we organize an afternoon meetup. We might start with an icebreaker game or jump straight into coding. A lot depends on the number of workshop participants and the organizers in each city. The training materials are always the same (and we’ve amassed quite a collection), as are our values and approach to people, but everything else depends on various factors. We don’t try to do everything by the book because we’re not a corporation; we’re an informal group that wants to help others. In Warsaw, for example, we end each workshop with a circle of women, but it might look different in another city.

CHALLENGES WOMEN FACE IN TECH

What challenges do women face in the tech industry, and how can girls.js help overcome them?

The male predominance in the IT industry is enormous, so despite increasing incentives, scholarship programs, sister initiatives, foundations, and conferences, there’s still a lot to do. Discrimination is like bed bugs – officially, everyone vehemently denies their existence, but the bugs are still lurking in old armchairs, sofas, and mattresses. And no one knows they have them until they see the bites.

Can you provide examples of such unequal treatment?

No one will openly say, “We pay women lower salaries, promote them less often, and don’t consider their opinions,” or “We don’t hire women for technical positions because we think they’re not suited for them,” or “We don’t like women over 50.” We are an anti-discrimination initiative, and we try to open the eyes of industry decision-makers while at the same time empowering women not to be afraid to stand up for themselves.

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

What are the plans and goals for the future of girls.js?

We dream of small things, for example, having a graphic designer permanently join us (voluntarily because our entire initiative is volunteer-based). We also dream of growing and organizing workshops in more cities. One of my little quirks is organizing workshops in small towns and villages. In big cities, it’s easier to find training, a helping hand, and a supportive community. In smaller towns, it’s not always so rosy. We hope that one day, perhaps a Women’s Rural Group will reach out to us, and together, we’ll develop an application. Why not? That would be something wonderful.

Magda, thank you for a great conversation!

A GREAT HIGHLIGHT OF THE GIRLS.JS WORKSHOPS IS THE CONSISTENT INVOLVEMENT OF OUR COLLEAGUE, SENIOR FRONT-END DEVELOPER, MONIKA NIEGRZYBOWSKA, AS A MENTOR.


WHAT DO YOU DO AS A MENTOR AT GIRLS.JS?

MONIKA: I help women and girls learn JavaScript, aiming to break stereotypes and encourage more women to pursue careers in IT.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING A WORKSHOP SESSION AT GIRLS.JS?

MONIKA: We start by teaching basic JavaScript and then help everyone with their coding. I make sure to give extra help when someone needs it.

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO VOLUNTEER AT GIRLS.JS?

MONIKA: I want to make the tech community more welcoming and inclusive for everyone, especially women. Seeing them gain confidence and skills makes it all worth it!