Hey Code School, Don’t Bro Me If You Don’t Know Me

I’ll admit that I’ve got a habit of calling people of both genders “bro.” But there’s a time and a place for it. I wouldn’t use it, for example, when I’m teaching my WordPress development class.

Which is why I was taken aback at the liberal use of slang terms for men over at Code School, the online web technologies academy where I’m currently on the JavaScript track. (Full disclosure, the whole reason I’m on Code School right now is because the company offered me a free trial.)

Still, I was excited to reinforce my self-taught foundations in JavaScript, Ruby, and Node so I could write better news stories about coding. Once enrolled, I began with JavaScript Road Trip, one of the first modules ever offered on Code School. The course began with an intro cartoon featuring a male avatar. To be clear, that’s not what made me feel unwelcome. That started after the animated intro, with my human JavaScript teacher’s assumption that I was a guy.


Instructor Jason Millhouse warned me away from using dollar signs in my variables, chiding “don’t be that guy.” A properly named variable was presented in the form of praise: “goodNameBro.” 

Great variable, but I’m not your bro.

Sexism Or Oversensitivity?

Working in technology journalism, (lack of) gender diversity at software companies is always at the front of my mind. As I finished up the JavaScript course—with a perfect score that I am excessively proud of—I wondered if I’d overreacted by sharing my complaint with Code School.

I didn’t go in to the course intentionally looking for ways to assume exclusion because of my gender. I’d been chugging along, completing the lessons and thinking only of JavaScript until the male slang jolted me out of it. It was an immediate, visceral reaction of, “Wait, do I even belong here?”

 Code School itself confirmed that my experience is valid. Turns out, I’m not the first student to question the maleness of the JavaScript module, CEO Gregg Pollack told me in a phone interview. Another user alerted Code School about the course’s male avatar, and changes were made.


The cartoon male avatar in JavaScript Road Trip Parts 1 and 2.

“We have an outside consulting firm make the animations. A user pointed out the animation is a little more guy-specific,” said Pollack. “So for JavaScript Road Trip 3, you’ll notice we had them switch the main avatar from a guy to a girl.”

Language has power, and for programmers that’s true on multiple levels. It can be exclusionary in what it doesn’t include … just as missing code can crash a program. Likewise, enough subtle omissions and a woman or girl might think she ought not to pursue code at all.

To Equalize Code, Begin With Real Life

There’s a Magic: The Gathering comic I love (yes, those are M:TG posters in my photo) that sums up the freedom of not always ruminating on equality.

“Can’t I have fun without dealing with these social issues?” a man in the comic exclaims. “That’s the same thing I’m asking for,” a woman replies. 

In other words, the Code School module that made me feel invisible probably wouldn’t even have registered a thought about gender equality for a man.

Pollack said this was the case at Code School a few years ago, before the company began hiring more women. It wasn’t a matter of leaving women out intentionally, only that male employees were creating avatars that applied to people like them.

“When employees created the modules, they were thinking about what they knew, people like them,” said Ashley Smith, operations head at Code School. “As more and more women joined the team, that changed.”

Pollack told me Code School began making a special effort to hire more women a few years ago. Today, the Orlando-based company is one-third female. To attract women, he said Code School offers perks that appeal to women, like yoga classes.

It’s true that the more recent the Code School course was created, the more gender neutral it is. Two of the latest courses on the JavaScript path, ones about the Angular.js and Ember.js frameworks, use a family and an anthropomorphic flame elemental respectively. An upcoming Angular course will feature Code School’s first female instructor. But before reaching those courses, most students must start with basic JavaScript, and others might have a similar experience as mine. 


The redesigned female avatar in JavaScript Road Trip Part 3. 

Which is why Code School told me they’re looking into changing the examples I highlighted in the JavaScript course I took.

“We take these issues as seriously as bug fixes,” said Smith. “If a course leaves a student with the feeling that it isn’t for them, we’re not meeting our goal.”

Readers might wonder why I’m taking Code School to task. While programming education sites like CodeBabes—which features female instructors who remove their clothes—make me feel disgusting, all Code School did was make me feel invisible for a moment. But if our standard in tech education is simply not to be as exploitive as CodeBabes, that’s a pretty low bar to set.

Instead, it’s worth celebrating that Code School holds itself to a higher standard, where even a few minutes of user discomfort is a big enough problem to need fixing.

Photo by Lauren Orsini for ReadWrite

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