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Where Are My Girls @ 2.0

smitchells Icon Posted by Shireen Mitchell

April 18th, 2008

A recent eWEEK article, “Where Did All The Girl Geeks Go?” has sparked a few questions about where the women are in IT. On the heels of the recent computer world report indicating that women in IT jobs are earning less, pay inequity could be one of the reasons. (Not that you have to be in the IT industry to be paid less just because you are a woman, as has been shown in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a woman working for the Goodyear corporation.) In addition, one blogger recently posed a question about why there were so few web designers who are women.

I posted a question on Twitter asking followers why they thought the numbers of women in the computer science field has dropped from 36% to 21% between 1983 and 2006. I received responses ranging from the premise that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) are not taught to middle school girls as aggressively as to boys, to discussions of the “toxic environment” that the technology industry creates for women.

Lucy Sanders of NCWIT states:

“Efforts to make technology more appealing to women have often been slipshod, at least on the consumer side—making a phone pink or putting sparkles or flowers on a laptop is not likely to do much to make girls genuinely excited about working in technology.”

Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web (don’t come posting to challenge me about the Internet vs. the Web. The military created the Internet and Berners-Lee created the web. The World Wide Web is the baby like it or not!) in “Berners-Lee challenges ’stupid’ male geek culture” stated:

“It’s a complex problem — we find bias against women by women. There are bits of male geek culture and engineer culture that are stupid. They should realize that they could be alienating people who are smarter and better engineers,” said Berners-Lee.

I have advocated and presented on this issue since 1997 and have compiled a list of converging issues in my presentation here.

The problem is both complicated and systemic, including legislation, images in media, and parental home behavior. There isn’t a “magic pill” that will “Turn the Corner for Tech.

For some, the notion that women aren’t out for technology careers could easily be solved by informing people that the first computer programmer happened to be a woman by the name of Ada Lovelace. The first “computers” were primarily women ( 6 of the 9 ENIAC “programmers.” “Computers” were the names given to the people, not the machines). And that the basis of the cell phone technology was created by an actress, Hedy Lamar, and her pianist. Some would be shocked to know that the early 1980’s PAC MAN game was designed to get more girls involved in gaming, as seen in this video:

I would have to agree with both Berners-Lee and fellow blogger Deanna Zandt, suggesting that the tech environment is male geek cultured and toxic for women. I don’t think it is completely intentional–however, it is cultural. I am used to having every young geek boy to adult male challenge me on my technical knowledge, including having them (both boys and men) bang on tables and yell at me. This won’t bode well for those that can just choose to go elsewhere. Standing my ground or being aggressive usually results in being called crazy or the b-word.

Even after Digital Sisters has worked with girls in our GirlTech learning environments and put our best girls out to work in teams with the boys, the boys still try hard to push them out. What would work is to change the culture from “competition” to “collaboration.” It will be a hard sell in the tech and gaming industry, but it would improve the percentage of women retained in the field, while also helping our economic downturn to start heading in the upwards direction.

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