When the subject comes up, lots of things get mentioned. “There are no women in computer science” and “women just don’t enjoy that kind of work” are both things I’ve heard time and time again. I know they’re not true, because I am a contradiction to statements like those.
Sharing My Love of Tech – Bit by Bit
This is a big reason that I do things like mentor FIRST Robotics students and talk to girls and women about programming—it’s a chance to show others that programmers also look like me. During these experiences, I’ve noticed that girls and women who are exposed to technology enjoy it and succeed at it.
5th Grade Girls
I recently had the opportunity to talk with fifth grade girls as part of a Girls in STEM event. I introduced myself and showed them a bunch of logos of tech companies: Instagram, Amazon, Google, Leap Frog, etc. (Instagram was a real crowd pleaser).
The girls were surprised to find out that these were tech companies, and that the work they do is all similar, and it’s what I do—software. Very few of the girls knew what software or programming was, or how the apps and games they are so familiar with are made.
After that explanation, I had them storyboard their own app ideas. The result was a lot of dress up “paper doll” apps and a lot of Minecraft apps with various additions. One student had the idea to recreate the sims app, but update it to make it easier to place objects vertically. (She also added combat boots to the wardrobe choices). Future open source contributor? Maybe, maybe not. But it was exciting to see them realize and understand what kinds of things a programmer works on. They were very engaged and enthusiastic about technology and coming up with their own ideas.
High School Girls
Stepping back a little bit further, I talked to a group of upper-class high school women who were attending a summer camp (at Michigan Tech University) for girls that are thinking about pursuing computer science in college. The range of girls they hosted this year was impressive—one girl convinced a teacher to teach her programming during a free hour, and another started a women in computer science club at her high school.
Their interest level was obviously great, and the questions they asked me were phenomenal. They asked me about my vision for my own future, about what tools and languages I use in my job, how do I work through technical problems, and about college and classes. It was a very exciting experience to see a room full of young technical women.
I also work with several high school students through my involvement with FIRST Robotics. I work with the programming team, which has the same gender gap that the industry does. We do, however, have a strong female presence on our engineering team. It’s an exciting thing to watch—these girls are good friend that like to hang out and sing Taylor Swift while designing, assembling, and fixing the robot. They give each other ease and confidence, and as a team they do fantastic dedicated engineering work.
We recently attended a Girls-only robotics competition where only girls were allowed to drive the robot or do robot maintenance. The same engineer girls led our team to a second place seeding position, and kept the robot in tip-top shape the entire time.
I am an organizer of the Ann Arbor chapter of PyLadies, a women’s tech group with a Python spin. At the group, we get mostly beginner to intermediate programmers.
One demographic I see a lot of is adult women who want to change careers, and have realized that tech is something that interests them. They tell me that they never considered it as a career when they were younger, but a lot of the opportunities and jobs in the field of technology are interesting to them, and they’d like to move in that direction.
Organizations like PyLadies and Girl Develop It (which has Ann Arbor and Detroit chapters) are in the community and serve as a low-barrier way for these women to get engaged with their local tech community. These women are interested in tech, but it took them until adulthood to figure out that they were.
Don’t Just Accept It – Join Me
The gender gap in technology is a complex problem, but addressing it is simple. Ensure the girls in your life know what development is really like—from the cool products developers work on to the kinds of problems we solve. Then, give them an opportunity to get their hands dirty and get them thinking about how they could create their own ideas using software.
What are your experiences with addressing the gender gap in tech? If you don’t have any yet—where are you going to start?