What are some ways to inspire girls to embrace technology?

An earlier version of this essay was originally published Nov 12, 2013 on Quora as a response to a question asked by Sheryl Sandberg: “What are some ways to inspire girls to embrace technology?”. Today, I’d like to challenge the framing of this question in two ways.

  1. Equal access to opportunity in tech is not just about gender, it’s about a dominant culture with assumed credibility, and a line between this culture and everyone else. I believe this credibility line cuts across race, gender, and class.
  2. Solving problems of inequity involves not just individuals working 20% harder to overcome individual obstacles, but naming and addressing structural problems and working together on structural solutions.

Here are what I see as the major factors that impact access to tech industry information, education, and opportunity, experienced as a cisgendered white woman.

Grade School

Lots of little factors add up in grade school. Teachers identify kids as innately smart vs able to develop ability through effort (a la The Trouble With Bright Girls). Teachers blatantly tell classes boys usually do better in math and science classes and tests. Basic access to computers and computing devices is unequal; schools will hold computer elective classes at the same time as other typically female dominated electives (like “fashion design”), creating a false dichotomy of access and interest. Families are more likely to buy a boy child a computer, and encourage (or even just fail to discourage) an interest in math and science in boys. Sometimes families intentionally steer girl children away from STEM careers, because they assume there are problems with the field that they want to protect their kid from.

I regularly speak to computer science students at college job fairs, and just last year a mom who was there with her daughter asked me the question “My daughter is interested in computer programming. But I just want to make sure it is possible for a female to be successful in this field. Can she do it?” How would you know if you never let her try?

Access to Information About STEM Fields

Lack of role models and information about STEM careers are problems. First of all, most parents and teachers don’t even know what engineering is, and don’t present it to their kids as an option: this limits access to opportunity for lots of kids, including many girls. I learned about engineering as a career option when I took an army aptitude test in 9th grade (everyone in my high school had to take this test). My results were “You scored 99s on math and science. Your ideal role in the army would be: [dont join the army, instead become an engineer]”. I asked my teachers what an engineer was, and they suggested maybe it meant a train engineer (!).

Parents also tend to tell their girl children that if they eventually want to have a family, they need a flexible career. Many girls who are interested in and are academic high performers in math and science become teachers for this reason, and ironically end up making less than half what a software engineer would make, doing much more work, for ultimately less flexibility.

TV has always been a problem. Popular shows like “The Big Bang Theory” portray nerdiness and interest in science as male, interest in social activities and fashion as female, and these shows enforce a false dichotomy between these sets of interests. Many popular science and scifi shows fail to include even a single female character. And women in general, especially teachers and parents, seem to endlessly repeat phrases like, “Math? my brain just doesn’t work like that” like a marketing slogan or self-fulfilling prophesy.

College

When girls get to college, those who remain interested in STEM fields begin to face discouraging environmental issues. The first thing I noticed my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University was the prior experience advantage: some kids entered the program with no programming experience, others had not just prior experience, but years of it, enabled by supportive parents and expensive extracurricular activities. This extra support had aspects of both gender bias and also class privilege, and those with prior experience were mostly white and male. This group had a significant advantage their first year as they had covered much of the freshmen computer science material before. I also experienced a significant amount of “anti-affirmative action backlash”, where — independent of my aptitude or experience, and with no direct information about my college application — male peers would confidently tell me: “You only got into this program because you’re a girl”. This aggressive othering and declaration of both inferiority and assumed privilege by the privileged enforces a sense of Impostor Syndrome and isolation.

Teachers also tend to call more attention to, and sometimes be more critical of female students. Teachers in male dominated classes hesitate to call on female students, and female students when called on often feel like we are not only answering a question to the best of our personal ability, but also representing the credibility of our entire gender. This makes the cost of a mistake or a “dumb question” feel very high, which leads to less classroom engagement by female students. This XKCD cartoon sums the issue up perfectly:

XKCD: How it Works

In later college years, I also noticed a pattern where many boys tended to be more comfortable working with each other, and tended to choose other boys to work on projects with. Within these groups, boys tended to more readily collaborate with each other, to ask “stupid” questions, and to share feedback while working. These safe and nonjudgemental learning environments help to build each member of the group’s confidence and fill in gaps in expertise. Girls were often left out of learning environments like this. When I asked my guy friends in college why they excluded people like me, they would usually shrug and say “Hey, I’m shy and awkward, I don’t feel comfortable just going over and talking to a girl like I would talk to a guy.” While I don’t believe this segregation and unequal access to learning support groups was intentional, I do think it was damaging, and left those who were deemed to be outsiders feeling isolated and less confident.

Staying in the Major

Clubs like “Women in Computer Science” and “Society for Black Engineers” definitely help with social isolation and othering, because they create safe environments for those who may not already have access to safe environments. I joined Carnegie Mellon’s Women@SCS club, and this helped me find a sense of community, and became a place to ask questions, hear stories, and to support and be supported.

Getting a few years older helped as well. Some of the privileged kids I went to college with who came into the program with years of prior programming experience dropped out after sophomore year, because they were unable to handle new challenges at a college pace without the support systems that buffeted them in high school. Others who stayed in the program were humbled by an increasingly rigorous learning experience that was — after the first year — just as hard for everyone. Struggling through “weed out” classes together and coding all night in the computer lab brought people together. As a result, I found more mutual respect and support in junior and senior level computer science classes.

Hearing about success stories also helps. Women@SCS regularly brought in confident women who were successful in their fields as speakers and panelists, talking about exciting and intellectually rigorous projects. Just seeing evidence of people who share identity characteristics with you counteracts stereotype threat and stereotype priming.

The flip side of this is that not ever seeing anyone who shares your identity causes anxiety. If every career panel, job fair, news article, or any event that confers status in your chosen field excludes people who look like you, you might naturally see this pattern and wonder about the reason for it: is there some problem with this field or with my identity that could prevent me from being successful? Suspecting a problem and either not being able to characterize it in a way that assuages fear of personal risk can easily lead students who are careful planners or are risk-averse to consider backup plans. Why should I stick with my STEM major when there’s potentially some problem with this major/field/job that could impact my overall success despite my effort? Why not pick another field instead where the numbers are more equal, where it could be more likely that my success will be determined by factors I can control, like how hard I work?

Getting And Keeping the Job

I’ve been a part of the software engineering interviewing process for a handful of organizations, and while many companies run objective and fair interview processes, there are rarely checks or audits on the population of applicants, where the jobs are advertised, whether jobs are advertised publicly vs through personal social networks. Across the board the number of female applicants is low. Many company hiring processes would benefit from ensuring jobs are advertised publicly, and in particular that jobs are advertised to populations who are interested in the company’s work and products.

In many professional software engineering work environments, I’ve observed social issues similar to those I noticed in the first few years of college. Each professional environment has it’s own dominant culture, and those who are outside of this culture are easily accused of being impostors, or of some kind of affirmative action style privilege. Those inside the dominant culture create safe collaboration environments that overtly exclude those outside of the dominant culture. Within these safe environments, those who are included can comfortably and easily share feedback with each other, ask “stupid” questions, mentor or get mentored, advertise opportunities for promotion. In practice, these leads to social segregation, and unequal access to information and opportunity.

But organizational culture is very malleable: explicit mentoring structures and effective management can help.

Manager feedback is incredibly important. In my management experience, most engineers who are outsiders with respect to the organization’s dominant culture assume that if they get no feedback or too little feedback, this means they were doing poorly and they would become unhappy. But most of the engineers in the dominant culture seemed to generally assume they were doing well. Since the dominant culture engineers weren’t affected negatively by more feedback, I make it a practice to give significant regular feedback to everyone, which seems to help the group overall.

Engineers in the dominant culture organically have access to mentors, but engineers who are outsiders do not. Creating mentoring programs that make access to this resource explicit, and explicitly inviting everyone into this opportunity also helps. And it helps not just the engineers who are outsiders with respect to the organization’s dominant culture, it actually helps everyone.

Conclusions

Ultimately, I believe that the root cause of any kind of tech industry disparity — including gender, race, and class — is lack of equal access to information, lack of equal encouragement and support, lack of equal access to opportunities. These are all solvable problems, if we as a culture choose to recognize and solve these problems.

While it’s easy for those who have been excluded to see and describe problems of privilege, it’s very difficult to see and understand the impact that privilege has when you benefit from this privilege. Privileged tech folks are especially prone to confirmation bias of the form: “I’m doing better than others because I must intrinsically be better”, especially when money, power, and egos are at stake. It’s also easy to fall into a fallacy of false scarcity, and suspect that equally sharing out opportunity could be a threat to those who currently have more opportunity. If you believe in capitalism, I find it hard to understand how you can reconcile the feeling that sharing opportunity is a threat: hoarding opportunity makes your field and industry less competitive, while allowing more people into the field will create more competition, and more competition will yield better products, results, systems.

And it’s worth noting that most of us in the STEM fields generally do not know our history: the history of cultural and economic oppression in America, the past battles for gender equality and racial justice. As the tech industry grows, and we create a big and bright future on the terms of the powerful tech industry few, we are creating new culture and economies at a breakneck pace, and will be doomed to recreate the problems of the past if we aren’t aware of our own power, use it intentionally, and create environments with explicit and equal access to information and opportunity for all.