Cracking the Code: An Interview with Alice Bentinck

The Gryphon speaks to Alice Bentinck, founder of Code First: Girls, on why so few women work in technology.

I first heard of Alice Bentinck when I picked up a copy of Tech City News, a magazine about the London tech scene, in a fiendishly overpriced cafe in Oslo. Homesick, I was immediately attracted to anything even vaguely London-y, and as a practicing feminist their leading feature on ‘Women in Tech’ intrigued me. After meeting Alice, it’s clear why she was included. After spending some time in a corporate job where she met her co-founder Matt Clifford, Alice decided to create a company called Entrepreneur First, an ‘incubator’ that takes in the most technically talented Computer Science graduates and gives them the financial support and advice to create their own startups. Not that exciting, except for the fact that 11 of those startups are now collectively valued at over $80 million.

Someone was doing something right. ‘I met my co-founder Matt while we were working at McKinsey & Co. We’d both done entrepreneurship stuff at university and we wanted to start our own thing. We’d always felt that the way that you did that was to get a corporate job first, but actually what we found was that whilst you acquire amazing skills, experience and connections, it’s not directly relevant to startups. We learnt that, in reality, the best way to learn how to build a startup is to get your hands dirty and start one.’

Something Alice noticed whilst running EF was the lack of female applicants. In her TEDx Talk, ‘Why Tech Shouldn’t be a Boys’ Club’ she talks about how ‘we created eleven startups, and they’re now worth £22 million. Not bad for a year’s work. And we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves… until we looked at the roll call of who was in the cohort.’ She points to a PowerPoint with the names of the EF team. ‘You might have to look twice to find the girls. There were only three.’ What struck her as most depressing was how this was the norm.  Women usually represent a tiny 10% of the tech industry.

‘Women usually represent a tiny 10% of the technology industry’

After starting EF, Alice became more acutely aware of the dearth of women going into the tech world. Not wanting to let her skills go to waste, and admirably undermining the whole ‘pull up the ladder behind you’ mentality, she started Code First: Girls, an organisation specifically and exclusively open to young women allowing them to learn how to code for free. ‘I think anything around tech still has a stigma attached to it, which is the stereotypical hacker – obese, bad – not the most attractive character.’ She points to Dennis Nedry, an overweight, socially awkward hacker in Jurassic Park. We try and think of other depictions of coders, programmers, hackers in the media: Gavin Orsay in House of Cards; the characters in The Social Network; the protagonists of The Internship (a film, which Bentinck notes, has a 30 minute scene in a strip club). We can’t name any women. If that doesn’t give enough of an idea of the masculinised conception of tech, we need to look no further than the recent iCloud hack, which saw prolific female figures like Jennifer Lawrence subjected to total violation of privacy, and intimidation. It was a male hacker who leaked the naked photos. ‘All of these things, I think, turn women away from tech.’ Indeed.

As someone not directly involved in the industry, I want to know how serious the sexism really is from an insider’s perspective. “Having worked in consulting, which is very male dominated, and tech, I think tech does have specific problems that it needs to address. It’s a fantastic place to work and has loads of benefits for women: it’s very flexible, you can work pretty much wherever you want, and work whatever hours you want. Yes there’s sexism, but the only way we can counter that is getting more women into tech, rather than putting women off.’ Unsatisfied, I ask if she’s specifically experienced sexism towards her, which, as an impressive female figure, wouldn’t surprise me. She seems reluctant to admit it, but eventually says, ‘Yes. I’m in a lucky position in that I’m working very closely with almost sixty guys on the [EF] programme, and I think that gives me a unique opportunity. I heard one of them saying the other day ‘x is being such a girl’ and I just said to them – and what is wrong with being a girl? If I can start beating out the latent sexism in them, then that’ll make a difference.’ Would she describe Code First: Girls as a feminist organisation? ‘Yeah.’ (Phew) ‘I think that feminism has a bad rep, and is misconstrued. Feminism just means equal opportunities for men and women. I think Code First: Girls is offering that equal opportunity.’

Talking to Bentinck, you can tell she’s probably not had the most financially difficult upbringing. Perhaps her RP is misleading, but I wanted to know to what extent class, beyond gender, inhibited people getting into tech. ‘In terms of building a startup, we do see a lot of people from privileged backgrounds. It is very risky, and if you have that financial safety net, you can deal with it more easily. In terms of coding however, as long as you have a computer and an internet connection, you can pretty much teach yourself.’

‘I heard one of them saying the other day ‘x is being such a girl’ and I just said to them – and what is wrong with being a girl?’

If you look at the universities Code First: Girls is in – Oxford, Durham, St Andrews, Bristol – it’s the universities with some of the highest percentage of students from private schools. I wonder to what extent the organisation could improve by branching out to include not merely more women, but also those not from the most privileged classes. ‘It’s a difficult one. The idea is that we will get Code First to become a national and international organisation, and we want to get to the stage where any university could start a Code First: Girls.’ She concedes that class is an issue on the whole, ‘[tech] should be one of those things that actually is equal opportunity, but I don’t think it has necessarily got there yet.’

Sitting in the archetypal startup office (I clock a hammock and at least four beanbags), I’m inspired by the idea of getting into a bit of coding myself. Bentinck guides me ‘it’s easier to code now than it has ever been. The amazing thing now is that there are a ton of web apps that teach you the basics of code. Resources like Code Academy, Udacity, TreeHouse, and various other coding resources. My advice is: find something you want to code, and be addicted to it.’ Unfortunately, I wouldn’t considering myself a tech whizz, and I’m crap at maths, so I think I’d maybe do better with a bit of teaching. One problem – Code First: Girls isn’t in Leeds yet. ‘What we need is a student ambassador who wants to build a course there, and once we can get someone who’s really keen to set it up, we can get a course going in January.’ Any readers out there that want to help a lazy student journalist learn to code?

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