Come On Girls, Code With Me!

“Computing has seeped into every corner of the economy. It is the new literacy. A basic understanding of how computers work and what they can do is becoming increasingly important in landing a 21st century job.
“The dearth of women in computing has the potential to slow the U.S. economy, which needs more students in the pipeline to feed its need for more programmers.
~ Mike Cassidy, Mercury News Columnist

It’s been in the news a lot lately. Women make up 50% of the users of technology, but hold only 17.6% of Computer Science degrees. Why is there such an imbalance? I’ve been reading about it and find myself stumped…it doesn’t make any sense.

As a woman who pursued Computer Science in the early 90’s, I’m often asked what it’s like to be the only female in the room. I’ve heard that many women experience sexism at the workplace and feel left out in the career. But I did not experience that. Yes, I was often one of the only women in the room, and I noticed it, but never one did I think I shouldn’t be there, or that my ideas wouldn’t be heard. Never once did any man in the room tell me that I didn’t belong.

Never once did I look at a professor and think, “He isn’t like me, I’m not sure I belong here.” Instead I thought, “I’m here to learn what he knows, and use it to make a living.”

As I’ve moved from programming to writing, I find myself again in the male dominated worlds of film and science fiction. And again I’m asked, “What’s it like to be a woman in a field full of men?”

I’m going to be honest in this blog—for me, it isn’t strange at all to be a woman working with men. Men are human, just like me, and many of them happen to like the same things I do. Often people try to blame the lack of women in STEM on the fact that it’s a men’s club, and perhaps that’s true, but no one has ever pulled me aside and said, “Hey, Lady, you don’t belong here.” Instead I found myself writing code, debugging, system testing, drinking beer and playing softball with my colleagues, who happened to be mostly men, and I enjoyed all of it.

Here in Silicon Valley, the tech firms are trying to figure out how to create a sense of workplace parity. They often point to the lack of women to hire. Truth is, the pipeline is pretty empty in general at this moment.  As Mike Cassidy states in his article for the Mercury News,

“The damage starts with a problem that is already being confronted by the tech industry and other companies that rely on computing talent (which means practically all of them): The economy is creating far more computing jobs than U.S. schools are creating computer science graduates.

We will experience a slowdown in our economy if we can’t fill these jobs, which means the current generation of kids needs to be encouraged to at least look at careers in computing. And this, of course, should include women. Why not? Girls are just as capable as boys in this realm. And these are high-paying jobs—all of our children ignore them to their peril.

Jocelyn Goldfein, sees this as a historic moment in history, where women could flock to careers in computer science like women flocked to the factories in WWII. “I really think this is kind of a Rosie the Riveter moment," says Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook.

Which is why so many organizations and colleges are trying to get more women into their ranks. Yet so many of the solutions being tossed around weren’t necessary for someone like me, a sorority girl, to jump into programming. However, there are some things I experienced that might help recruit more girls into this career, and it's all about education.

First of all, I began coding at age 12. I think this is important for all children. In my case, my first computer science teacher was female, hired to teach those of us identified as “excellent” in math twice a week. In addition, my math teacher at the time, who was also my Mathcounts coach, was female. According to research, because I saw myself in these women, it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to think I could be good at these subjects.

So perhaps one solution is to have more women teach math and computer science to middle schoolers. I can’t say for sure that worked for me, but it was my experience. Yet my work with strong women didn’t stop there. I went on to attend an ALL GIRLS high school, and I firmly believe that this is what makes me able to be in a room of mostly men and work alongside them, without feeling different.

My teachers at my ALL GIRLS high school were women. My Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus teachers, my Biology and Chemistry teachers and, best of all, my Computer Science teacher. There were only eight of us who took her class, but Sr. Newhart (yes, she was Bob Newhart’s sister) was a great instructor and under her tutelage I learned Pascal and Fortran. What a woman!

Truth be told, I love computers and I love men. I love working with both and have always found the experience enjoyable. Perhaps then, the issue isn’t that men don’t want women working with them, but rather for some reason women somehow think they can’t. Perhaps having females teach me math and computer science from age 12 – 18 shaped my confidence.Do most boys see men in those roles and follow them in the same way? If this is true, then would replacing women with men as teachers to this age group make men less interested in math and science? What good would that do?

Maybe separating the sexes during puberty is powerful for both of men and women? Perhaps letting us learn from our elders, without the need to be attractive to the opposite sex, frees our intellect in a way that builds confidence that can never be taken from us? That once we’ve mastered our minds, we can integrate in college and the workplace in less stereotypical ways? If so, this might just be the case for single-sex education, which is something I NEVER see in the list of ways to get women interested in technology.

But it might just be the answer.

***In the meantime, I've begun speaking to middle and high schoolers about the creative career of coding. If you're looking for someone to share her experiences in this field, and how this has helped me launch a career in science fiction, contact Brighter Brains. I'd love to share my professional journey with your kids, boys and GIRLS!

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