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A word about women

November 23, 2009

This started as a reply to Kevin’s comment under my Is it in you? post, but I decided it deserved its own spot as a separate post.

Although I’m extremely interested in other people’s thoughts on the matter, I usually avoid weighing in on the whole “Women in Tech” question for two reasons: 1) I don’t feel qualified to speak for an entire gender, and 2) I don’t feel like I qualify as a woman in tech.  I’m a woman who likes tech.  I’m a woman who observes tech from the fringes.  But I’m not in there with a soldering iron or up to my elbows in code.  (Yet.)  It occurs to me, however, that these feelings probably aren’t unique to me, and that if more women who are comfortable on the fringes felt free to dive into the middle, we wouldn’t have as big a gender imbalance (and we could eventually move on to talking about and solving other problems, which I think we’d all like to do).

So Kev, thanks for your thoughts and questions.  I still don’t feel comfortable speaking for an entire demographic, but maybe it’s time I speak for myself.  Everyone’s childhood is unique; not even your siblings will have exactly the same experiences you have.  But I do think I can extrapolate pieces of my own experience into things that may push other women toward or away from tech.

1. Individual personality.

I think we can agree that some things are innate.  The whole nature/nurture debate is clearly beyond the scope of this post, but I think it’s good for us to remember that some boys and girls will have traits that make tech a good fit, and some boys and girls will have traits that make tech a poor fit.  That’s okay.

Looking back on my own experiences in the light of my education and career choices, it makes sense to me that I took this circuitous route to coding.  I was never one of those kids who took stuff apart all the time for the heck of it.  I definitely wasn’t shy about getting in there with a screwdriver if something was broken, but as long as it was functional my clock radio remained intact.  I was, instead, the kind of kid curled up in her room with a book (unless there was an opportunity to swim, and then my butt was in the water until I was a shriveled little prune of a child; but I digress).  I did love to solve problems and ask questions, and I was very receptive to my dad’s explanations of math (one time in the third grade I came home with a question on long division, and by the end of the evening he had taught me log tables).  I ended up taking to math quite a bit, to the point that I skipped a level in middle school and participated in ASHME (now AMC) competitions all throughout high school.

So perhaps the lesson for parents here is to be open to your daughters’ interests and make all kinds of information available to them as far as their innate interests go.

2. Role models.

My mom was a double major in math and computer science, and went on to get her master’s in computer science from MIT.  While she stayed home to raise my brothers and myself, I was always very aware of her educational background and her interest in tech topics, and I think I owe a lot of my comfort level and early interest in such things to the fact that I had a strong role model in such close proximity.

It’s possible, though, that had I grown up knowing women who were currently working in tech fields, I might have been inclined to pursue them more actively when in high school and college.  I remember going to the office with my dad on “take your child to work” day (I don’t recall now whether it was specifically daughters at that point—might have been), and that the overall impression was: wow, this office has lots of computers, bright carpeting, blinky lights, and a lot of dudes in sneakers! Not that there’s anything wrong with dudes in sneakers, mind you, but I remember very few, if any, dudettes.  That’s probably different now in many offices, but not in all.

So perhaps the lesson for parents here is to be conscious of the kind of role models your daughters have, and that it might be worth going out of your way to help them see other women doing cool stuff in tech—not just on TV or in the paper, but IRL.

3. Peers.

In high school, math was my strongest subject.  In fact, I got a perfect score on the math portion of the SATs (but not on the verbal portion).  So how did I end up an English major?

I went to a small, private, college prep school and graduated with a class of 27 people (most classes had 50 people, but any way you slice it it’s not a large school).  20 of my classmates were female; just 7 were male.  But when I looked around at my fellow ASHME competitors, the gender balance was 50/50.  If I included competitors from other class years near mine, it skewed wildly toward the male side.  Where were my peers?  Then there was the question of who were my peers.  The other “math girls” were shy, introverted, and socially awkward.  (Of course, now I realize that it was high school, and we were all socially awkward.)  I played two varsity sports, sang in the chorale, and participated in student government; I wasn’t sure I really fit in with the math and science crowd.  Of course, I didn’t fit in with the “math is hard and boring” crowd either.  I felt like a misfit.

And where do all misfits fit in?  As English majors!  Ta-da!

Seriously, though, the best place for someone who is interested in a little bit of everything, but hasn’t yet discovered an in-depth passion for anything, is with a whole bunch of books.  Publishing, the industry that finds, curates, and spreads every kind of idea via books, was the ideal career for me.  And still is.  But I’m more and more coming to realize that tech serves this same purpose.  (This is probably because tech has been growing into this role with the rise of the internet.  Keep in mind that when I was making these decisions in high school, the mainstream world was just beginning to discover email and AOL.  Today’s students can certainly more easily recognize the ways in which tech dovetails with their other interests.  Including, of course, publishing.)

So perhaps the lesson for parents here is to help kids discover what their interests are, what those interests say about who they are as people, what that means about how they relate to their peers, and how various forms of tech might support or augment those interests (and, therefore, how tech might support or augment them as people).

4. Leaving the door open.

My grandmother likes to say (and I’ve obviously taken to repeating it), “You can do everything, you just can’t do it all at the same time.”  This is a woman who’s 78 years old and currently enjoying her fifth or sixth career as a university professor (previous careers include middle school teacher, opera singer, television personality, church organist and pastor’s wife, and probably another one I’m forgetting at the moment).  This also relates to the point about role models, of course.  But the main idea is that even though I didn’t gravitate to coding right away, I had enough of a taste of those concepts to come back around to it at this point in my life.

The freedom to observe tech culture, to be surrounded by tech-related ideas, and to finally dive into the actual coding nitty-gritty when I felt good and ready has been integral to my enthusiasm and willingness to embrace it.

So perhaps the lesson for parents here is that you don’t have to panic if your daughters choose something else.  Even if you think they have the innate personality for it; even if you’ve gone out of your way to provide role models; even if their peers are going into tech: there’s always time to come back around when they’re so inclined.  Do them a favor by keeping that door open via the willingness to talk about what you know, to share ideas, and to keep providing encouragement.

—-

There are probably other things I’m failing to distill here, and other women who have taken other paths have made other great points.  (If you or your kids are interested in reading some of them, I highly recommend an essay collection called She’s Such a Geek.)  But this is what I have to add to the conversation at the moment.  And thanks for asking—I think the fact that parents like you are sensitive to these questions is a huge step forward for your daughters and for us as a community.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    November 24, 2009 3:21 pm

    I’m a geek/nerd computer programmer with a middle school daughter who loves math and science, plays the flute, dances, sketches Manga constantly on everything, and has her junior karate black belt – can you tell I’m a very proud father?

    I’ve often wondered what kind of career she will have. I see so many options open to her in so many fields. At the same time I find myself wishing she would focus her attention on math and science at the expense of her other interests.

    Your comments remind me that whatever she decides to do, I can relax and let it happen. I can see that I “don’t have to panic” if she chooses something else.

    • November 25, 2009 5:11 pm

      Best of luck to your daughter, who sounds very accomplished indeed. She will certainly have many options open to her, and is lucky to have you there as such a supportive and proud dad. :)

  2. November 24, 2009 8:22 pm

    I love this post and I feel like you’re describing my childhood almost to a tee. Add in a sprinkling of being queer to add to the misfit factor that takes you towards the arts instead of a tech career (at first) and it’s perfect. So glad you wrote this, so curious to see how your learning goes. If there’s one thing that I think could have helped me as a young girl with a natural talent for a lot of different things it would have been to hear a little less “you can do anything” and a little more “pick something and get good at it, you don’t have to do it forever but it’s good to learn focus”.

    • November 25, 2009 5:17 pm

      Thanks! Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it before, but the advice to “pick something and get good at it” is probably valuable guidance. I’ve often envied the kind of people who love one thing enough to do it 10 or 12 hours a day to the exclusion of other hobbies or interests. Perhaps it takes a bit more discipline to invest that much time and energy in a single pursuit when you’re interested in so many other things and easily “sidetracked”, like I am, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

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