How to get women into tech

Why We Don’t Need More Women In Tech… Yet «

I just saw an article on why calling for “getting more women into technology” is useless, namely that there just aren’t enough female computer science graduates being produced for women to enter the industry in significant numbers, much less redress the fact that the industry is so male-dominated. The way things stand, she says, there simply aren’t enough competent female programmers and engineers to do this; you need to get girls young in order to cultivate their interest in technology and play down their interest in stereotypical feminine pursuits.

Women, she says, make up roughly 30% of the computer and information science workforce, but even when women are doing non-technical roles within tech companies, they are said to be “in tech”. She doesn’t mention how many of the 30% of the women in this workforce are doing work such as the graphic design aspects of web design rather than programming or engineering. The proportion of women graduating computer science degree programmes in the USA declined from 37% in 1984 to 22% in 2005, and although girls and women do use computers just as much as boys do, they are generally not interested in how the computer works and just want it as a “means to an end”.

The reason lies in what we encourage girls to take an interest in when they are very young:

If we give the hypothetical Jesuit the hypothetical child, the expectation is that the child will not depart from his upbringing: that of a moral Catholic.

We could just as easily say today, “Give me a child until she is seven, and I will give you the female engineer.” But we don’t say that; we as a culture don’t encourage little girls in their most formative years to be engineers. We encourage them to be mothers, caretakers, cooks, designers, aestheticians, seamstresses, communicators, hairdressers, and everything but engineers — or generals, mechanics, and anything else that, harking back to the beginning of this essay, requires the slightest bit of scientific, mathematical or technological skill.

Before you retort with your personal vote of support for female education, I’d ask you to take a stroll around a toy store and imagine you can’t read. Imagine, if you will, that you’ve been taught a simple system of color-coding: Pink and purple is for girls, and blue, green and gray are for boys.

You will immediately notice the drastic segregation — the gendered version of the Jim Crow-era South. There are entire aisles of pink, and other aisles devoted to dark blues and greens. Imagine that you are only “allowed” in the pink and purple areas of the store, and examine the toys you find there.

The vast majority of playthings for little girls encourage them to think about nurturing others and caring for themselves — including, to a large extent, their appearances. These aren’t inherently negative lessons to learn, except for the fact that these lessons exclude others that deal with problem-solving, strategy, physics… you know, the kinds of things you learn from playing with Lego, K’nex, Stratego and other male gender-coded games and toys.

I take exception to the comparison with the “Jim Crow-era South”. People were physically attacked and murdered for crossing the racial divide then: for demanding to vote, for drinking from the wrong water fountain, for refusing to move from their seat on the bus or for attempting to marry across the racial divide. It is possible for children to have interests in things associated with the other sex — it’s just, sometimes, more difficult (though much less difficult than it is when the cross-gender interest is the other way, i.e. boys taking an interest in typically girlish things.)

She encourages anyone concerned about redressing the gender balance in technology to find a young girl and become her mentor:

When she is young, give her “boy toys” and video games. If she wants one, get her a laptop instead of jewelry for her birthday. Tell her not to worry about flirting or her hair. Send her to a computer science camp or space camp. Encourage her to take advanced maths and sciences in school and to enter a computer science degree program.

If you call them boy toys, then it makes them that much less likely that girls will be interested in them; we should say that they’re not “boy toys”, rather they are for everyone. The mentor should also make sure that their (her?) protegée spend time away from their peer group, as it is likely to be them, rather than her parents, who are encouraging her to spend too much time on their hair, or whatever, at the expense of playing with Lego or their laptop. Her parents, both mother and father, should also be involved — perhaps Dad should encourage the daughter to help him with the things he does, even if it’s nothing to do with technology but rather some kind of outdoor activity. (A few weeks ago, I saw a letter in the Times which mentioned Meccano, and the fact that fathers often buy it to play with it themselves, and expect their children to play with them, even if they’re girls!)

However, they shouldn’t forget that little girls, mostly, want to be little girls. The feminist theories you read about how femininity itself is a tool of oppression mean nothing to them (and for that matter, they will not impress a lot of older girls or grown women either), so you have to show them that being interested in these things and being a girl aren’t contradictory. Years ago, my mother had a friend who I remember always dressing in quite a feminine manner, usually with long and colourful skirts. She had a young daughter who she was trying to get to wear trousers and who clearly didn’t like it — she wanted to wear dresses, and when someone bought her a pair of trousers as a present, she said thank you — “but it’s trousers again”. The mother clearly didn’t want to wear trousers herself, so why should she have expected her daughter to? Fair enough, put a pair of trousers on her for running around in the garden and getting dirty, if that’s what the daughter wants to do, but let her change back into her dress afterwards. (And if you’re worried about her spending too much time trying to look feminine, it takes less time to put on pretty clothes than to style hair.)

I should add that not all girls who aren’t shoe-horned by their parents into a stereotypical form of femininity end up as technologists, anyway. A lot of the men in technology are geeks and that isn’t seen as particularly masculine by a lot of men (or women) either. My sister was never interested in computers, but pursued karate (not exactly Pink Princess stuff) as a teenager until a Saturday job got in the way; she is now training to be a nurse. My aunt has worked in the computer industry most of her working life (as has her twin sister); her daughter is now training to be a nurse as well.

Getting women into tech doesn’t just involve getting them into computer science degree courses, however. There are significant gaps in what they teach, and increasingly they don’t teach the low-level languages that operating systems and major applications are based on like they did in the 1970s. You may have to learn those at home. A lot of major software is developed on the programmers’ own initiative independently of any academic or corporate body, even if they are part of one. A lot of it is open-source and to contribute, you don’t have to be anyone’s employee or student — you just have to make yourself known to the developers and be trusted by them. Being a major contributor to a major open-source project may well look as good on your CV as a bachelor’s computer science degree, and a small minority of committers (i.e. people authorised to apply changes to the program, rather than merely to suggest changes) on open-source projects are female. Some projects have no female committers at all.

To get women to participate in that, however, something may need to be done about the culture of some of these projects. Now, not when these mentored young women turn up in college. I’ve attended a particular Linux user group conference where there was a lot of vulgar language used, the speakers taking it for granted that nobody in the almost all-male audience would get offended; the same was true of the podcast which was connected to the conference, and those involved told anyone who complained to get their own show. (They did, however, change the tone the year after, but the year after that, according to some of those who went — I didn’t — they reverted to type.)

More recently, I commented on an article (written by a woman!) in Linux Format, in which she castigated women who took offence to sexist remarks on the Linux kernel mailing list. People often feel no need to censor their words, imagining that there’s no need to because all the people present are like them. If we want to see women get into tech in large numbers, this culture has to be changed. After all, if men are irritated by the lad-culture in some circles within the tech community, how do people expect women to put up with it?

To conclude, Jolie O’Dell comes up with a good idea of how to nurture a generation of young women to take an interest in technology, but they need to be matched with a change of culture in certain sections of the tech community so that women aren’t put off them. While many jobs require a computer science degree, to make a contribution and make your name in the wider tech community, you need skills you may not be able to learn in most colleges anymore. Finally, the girls need to be reassured that there is no contradiction between their interest in technology — or perhaps other things that their female peers are not interested in — and being feminine.

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