Think tech is still a 'man's world'? Sadly, you're not wrong, although more and more women are joining the ranks. What kinds of obstacles face girls trying to break into tech and what can be done to overcome them?By Tiffany Crawford (Founder & Creator, IGNITEHer NY)
There's a lot of hype around getting young girls into tech by teaching them how to code, introducing them to mobile app development and talking to them about robots. Which is great. However, as one of the actual ‘girls in tech’, I’m slightly annoyed that nobody's picked up on a glaring oversight.
For one, none of these programs seem to truly address the main problems faced by women in tech. Of course it's partly to do with exposure and partly to do with access, but there have been positive developments on both these fronts, and young students today are in a much better position than I was at their age.
I learned to code thanks to a class at high school, but these types of classes were few and far between. They still are in too many places. Few friends benefited from the opportunities I had. However, thanks to a number of fun and interactive websites, it's now possible to jump right in and start coding quickly, so this is a step in the right direction.
In my experience, there are two major obstacles preventing girls getting into tech:
The Ego-First Environment of the Tech World
The tech world by nature is a somewhat egotistical "I’m smarter than you" world. It does not always feel like a safe place to play, especially if you are just learning, and especially if you happen to be the only woman or non-white person in the room. I also noticed in grad school that some geeks really enjoy being geeks, knowing we have access to knowledge that others just don’t. It’s part of the culture: talking fast, throwing unix commands around, using cool shortcuts. It makes it an exclusive club.
While this can be fun at times, it hardly makes for inclusion, nor is it a supportive space for those who are just starting out.
In 'What most schools don’t teach', the co-founder of Girl Develop It shared, “If someone had told me that software is really about humanity, that it’s really about helping people by using computer technology, it would have changed my outlook a lot earlier.” When I talk of relatability, I mean helping people understand how technology can make a positive difference to the people who actually use it.
Once this becomes clear it changes everything!
Most girl-geeks I know are avidly working on a problem in the world that they are passionate about and understand how technology creates a gateway to the solution. That is why I love it: I see how it can solve all kinds of problems, from improving personal productivity to tackling more complex challenges in healthcare and education.
If you really want to get girls, women, even people from diverse ethnic backgrounds more interested in tech, I am going to let you in on a little secret: we are a social people. We care about the world and we want to have a positive impact on it. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious to everyone that hundreds or even thousands of lines of code can do that.
Here are three ways those of us in tech, and beyond, can truly encourage a pipeline of girls, women, and people of all ethnicities to get involved in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) conversation:
Create Programs That Speak to the Person First, Not the Technology
Integrate media, the arts and social problems into your tech programs. Allow the teens to join you because of their interest in solving a problem that matters to them. Once they have this anchoring their involvement, this in turn helps them overcome other potential barriers. By focussing on bigger problems, they cease worry so much about themselves and this means that their confidence grows.
Once you have managed to attract girls to join a program, create a team structure where everyone wins. Establish an environment that nurtures our natural inclination, contrary to popular belief, to help each other. The “catty girl” syndrome is a result of nurture, not nature. By nurturing our true nature as human beings you'll help create a fantastic community that supports each other both within and outside of the program.
Oddly enough, creativity and technology are sometimes thought of as opposites. A few weeks ago I sat across from an artist friend and answered some tech questions she had related to her business. During the conversation she said, “... for creatives who are on the other side...” As though we were on opposing teams!
This is what many people believe, especially women. Science and tech tend to be viewed as masculine, heady, linear disciplines (with the possible exception of biology and medicine which have a more obvious 'human' connection). This couldn't be further from the truth. Speaking specifically about the world of programming, the best computer scientists know that coding is one of the most creative outlets a person can have. This is precisely why it has been the format of creation, so to speak, for some of the most innovative technologies we all enjoy. Coding can be an art, it is a form of expression, and its results can be truly magical. Highlight this! There are so many brilliant creative girls out there - let's get them into tech.
Women 2.0 readers: Are you a woman working in tech? If so, do you have advice for others who are thinking of getting involved?
About the guest blogger: Tiffany Crawford is the creator of IGNITEHer, a teen-focused program with the mission to create a pipeline of women tech founders. Tiffany is a sought-after expert in business process and IT training with a client list that includes Seimens, McKesson and Warner Bros. She earned her MS in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley and her BS in electrical engineering from Howard University. Follow her on Twitter @TiffanyShenelle Photo credit: Ed Yourdan via Flickr