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Technology

From offline to tech savvy in Berlin

Technology start-ups are flourishing in the German capital and there's a growing network of women in the scene. DW's Jennifer Collins has gotten on board.

Berlin, famous for its techno clubs, is carving out a new image as the city of tech start-ups. These days, you can't walk down the street in Mitte, Kreuzberg or Neukölln without tripping over a cool new digital start-up or co-working space spilling over with art nerds and techie types.

The area around Torstrasse in the Mitte district, jokingly known as Silicon Allee, has become a particular magnet for digital start-ups. The audio hosting platform SoundCloud, which has exploded in size and popularity over the past year, is based there. The Sankt Oberholz Café just around the corner is wall-to-wall with MacBooks, iPads and would-be entrepreneurs striking business deals over cappuccinos.

The buzz about the start-up scene is drawing tech enthusiasts from all over the world. Some, even known technophobes like me, catch the bug after they arrive in the Berlin.

From ignorant to expert

When I first swapped the daily grind in Dublin for the good life in Berlin, I was what you might call technically challenged. I didn't know my Web from my Net (yes, there's a difference) and, as far as I was concerned, people were talking about some new-fangled coffee brewing technique when they mentioned running JavaScript.

I was an analogue stowaway hiding out among the digital natives, hoping to remain undetected.

And yet, four years of living here has left me with an Android smartphone surgically grafted to my hand, a gig reporting on the start-up scene in Berlin, and a serious love of technology.

It all started when I first arrived in Berlin to study politics. An acquaintance of mine, who has since become a close friend, was working for Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that allows content creators to share their works more easily through tailored Creative Commons copyright licenses. She invited me to talks on various aspects of technology.

Little by little, the tech sector grew more exciting and more accessible. Finally, it dawned on me how these new developments were affecting almost every aspect of our lives and giving more people a voice and an outlet for expression.

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I don't mean to be a tech Utopianist, but as I listened to my politics professors talk about democratic theories and power structures, I began to see the potential of new technologies to change things for the better. I also realized that this can only happen if we prevent both from being usurped by major corporations or curtailed by governments and try to put Web-making tools in the hands of as many people from as many backgrounds as possible.

Overcoming gender clichés

But what took me so long to see all of this? Some people have suggested it was because I'm a woman.

Certainly, the statistics are compelling. In the US, women make up almost half of the work force, but hold less than 25 percent of jobs in the science and technology sector, according to a government report. Even with a female chancellor who holds a PhD in Chemistry, there is a dearth of women in technology in Germany. Just 15 percent of jobs in the IT sector are occupied by women, according to a survey by IT association BITKOM. They hope to increase this to 25 percent by 2020.

The experiences of the women I spoke to varied. Many had encountered subtle forms of sexism of the jokey "woman, make me a sandwich" kind. A few had experienced outright discrimination and weren't hired on the basis of their gender. It doesn't happen everywhere, of course, but these views are still worryingly prevalent.

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I've come across the more subtle kind of discrimination, but it played a big part in my initial disinterest in technology. I had internalized the stereotype that women "don't get tech" when I should've rejected it. Instead of installing my new laptop's operating system myself, because, you know, it's too complicated for a wishy-washy humanities graduate like me, I'd call a (usually) male friend to do the job for me.

A growing network

Coming to Berlin changed that for me. It was here that I met other women in tech and recognized that those stereotypes were stupid and harmful. The lack of visible female role models in the tech sector is a huge problem for women in general, as Jess Erickson, founder of Berlin Geekettes, an organization aimed at mentoring and promoting women in technology, explained during a panel discussion on women in tech at Campus Party Berlin earlier this year.

A grass roots movement of women helping and inspiring other women is growing here. Women involved or hoping to become involved in the technology sector can find support, advice and even learn how to code through a number of initiatives started by the likes of Jess Erikson or Anika Lindtner, co-founder of Rails Girls Berlin, to name but a few. (Rails Girls teaches women how to program using the programming language Ruby on Rails.)

Hopefully this kind of outreach can attract more women to the sector, because digital technology is not all cables and coding, it's about understanding how we can use those things to affect positive social change on both basic and profound levels.

As Caroline Drucker, Germany's country manager at online crafts store Etsy, said at the first Geek Girl Meetup in Berlin, a tech scene made up of different genders, ages and social backgrounds is not only empowering for women, it will "lead to better thinking and better products."

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