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I Am the Girl That STEM Lost

Before we become women in tech, we’re girls who are interested in tech

Rachael Renk
Dec 7, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo: Steven Errico/Getty Images

I’ve been fascinated by computers since I was at least 12 years old.

I was a homeschooled kid. I had a lot of opportunity to study topics that engaged me. With encouragement and support from my parents, I grew into an autodidact before I even knew the meaning of the word. I disassembled discarded PCs my dad would bring home from work, taking components out of one machine and installing them into another to see if they would function as intended. I was always working toward creating the perfect Frankensteined computer.

I checked out a book from the library about how to build your own PC, and I read every word. I also read dozens of books on HTML and XHTML. I spent hours hand-coding simple websites in Notepad and comparing the rendered results between Internet Explorer and Firefox. I sent away for 10 copies of Ubuntu, but never successfully got the CD boot function to work on my late ’90s model hand-me-down PC.

One of my favorite books I read over and over was Hacker Cracker by Ejovi Nuwere and David Chanoff, an autobiographical tale of teenage Nuwere’s “journey from the mean streets of Brooklyn to the frontiers of cyberspace.” It was chock-full of danger, excitement, and a certain kind of power in the discovery of the digital underworld.

Back then, I felt like anything was possible as long as you had a modem and a keyboard. At some point, I lost that feeling.

“At the heart of this debate and so many others is that we do not consider women’s lived experiences to be valid data.”

I wanted to study programming or computer science in college, but ultimately gave up that dream because of the math requirements. Math had always been hard for me. I struggled a lot with math and did only marginally better with a B-average during my one semester at public high school. To this day, I tell everyone how bad I am at math, how I had to drop elementary algebra as a college freshman. No, seriously, I’m really that bad.

Now, I’m approaching 30 and I find myself rethinking it: Was I bad at math because biology decided that my brain wasn’t equipped for that level of mathematical thinking? Or was I bad at math because my confidence was never built up, because girls aren’t expected to be good at numbers and logic and because I don’t always learn in the same way other kids do?

In the end, I found a way to work in technology through a softer lens (with fewer math requirements). I’m a communicator. I facilitate between engineer and layperson. I focus on the people more than the tools because it’s an important job and someone needs to do it. I’m a user advocate. So much of my passion for this industry is the intersection of people and technology, and I am proud to have a place there.

But… I still feel left out. I still look longingly to the ever-exclusive “cool kids” club of programmers and developers. People who were lucky enough to be born with some predisposed gift for numbers and mechanics and logic. They remind me constantly that I am not one of them. For every position I’ve held in this industry—technical writer, instructional designer—there has been a painfully obvious divide between me and the “tech” people.

The sting of that divide worsens because it is unmistakably gendered. All of the teams I have worked on have been primarily women. In my most recent role, my training team was entirely women (a standard demographic at my company), while the development teams were composed of mostly men. In my previous job as a technical writer, the numbers were slightly better. Of the team I worked with on a daily basis, there might be three or four men for every dozen women writers.

It’s not just me. Overwhelmingly, the safe and comfortable way for women to exist in a STEM space is through roles in marketing, communications, training, and design. Women are expected to bring the soft, people skills to any professional role. The attitude toward these softer tech roles paired with largely female staffing is no coincidence.

I recently read an article by Emily J. Smith in which she explores the STEM gap, women’s declining interest in tech, and the argument that the lack of interest is biological. Smith observes that while there is no shortage of data and statistics to support the existence of this gap, the debate is missing stories from women: “the most critical piece of data.” Smith notes: “At the heart of this debate and so many others is that we do not consider women’s lived experiences to be valid data.”

It’s absolutely horrible and absolutely true. More often than not, numbers are weighted more heavily than the qualitative evidence found in the personal experiences of women working in the gap every day. When women share those stories, the world needs to listen. My story is one of those stories.

In the industry I work in, I’m embarrassed to tell people I was an English major. More often than not, I just refer to my emphasis (technical communication) and leave out the rest. Or better yet, I don’t even mention my undergraduate degree. English majors seem to have a crummy reputation in the workplace—a topic deserving of its own essay—and I am in constant fear that I will be judged as an incapable, overly wordy, and impractical bookworm with little to no tech savvy. It’s easier to make a case for myself as a technical communicator, but it requires more explanation than most people’s attention spans can handle.

My professional life is a never-ending cycle of struggling to prove myself with each new company, team, and project. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for my other interests, like building websites, designing mobile apps, finally learning a real programming language. Despite that, every few years, I make the effort to repeat an online course in HTML and CSS. I want to stay fresh and keep my skills sharp, even though I’m rarely called on to use them. For years, I’ve had my eye on courses in Java, Python, and C++. They have permanent residence on my “one day, when I get the time” list.

Every time I get close to registering for one of those programming courses, I back out at the last minute. I’m scared. I don’t think I can do it. I worry that I’m not smart enough. If I try, I’ll find out why there were so many math requirements for that computer science degree, why I’m not capable. I will fail.

At a company conference meeting where the topic was the gender gap in STEM fields, the speaker talked about how our company was working to address the issue through actively recruiting more women. The numbers were increasing, but they still weren’t great—not even 50/50 yet. I felt comforted and pleasantly surprised that my employer was aware of the problem. It felt good to hear them not only acknowledge the disparity but speak to a plan for change.

At my company, recruiters look for a specific list of degrees when hiring for developer positions. To that end, in the eyes of my employer, I would not be qualified to work as a developer because I don’t have a degree in computer science or math or information systems. I strongly suspect I’m capable of performing the job functions, but I guess I’ll never really know.

Before they become women in technology, they are girls who are curious about technology.

The problem reaches much deeper than simply improving the recruiting practices; although that is an important and worthy endeavor. Of course I’m pleased that tech companies are making a conscious effort to hire more women, but broader change and improvement for future generations has to be implemented by looking to the beginning.

Before they become women in technology, they are girls who are curious about technology. Initiatives like summer coding camps and immersion programs for girls are headed in the right direction. These types of programs have been shown to improve parity: Women are more likely to complete a bootcamp-style training in a STEM subject than they are to graduate from a similar program in a higher education setting. My company has been offering a code camp for girls for two years, but these kinds of efforts need more visibility, resources, and support. These programs need to be made accessible to all girls—regardless of race, culture, location, or socioeconomic status.

Without resources and support, it’s no wonder that girls in college aren’t choosing STEM degrees. In 2016, only 17.9 percent of computer science graduates were women, according to the Computing Research Association. I can’t help but think that 20 years ago, we expected better for young women. If the needle is moving this slowly, what is 2026 going to look like?

We need to listen to the girls just as much as the women who came before them. When girls’ interests lead them to technology, that curiosity needs to be nurtured and encouraged. Creating an environment where girls can pursue these interests alongside other girls, with mentorship from successful women in technology, can instill in them from an early age that they are, without a doubt, capable and deserving of a place in STEM.

Written by

BA, MATC. Technical and business writer, adjunct instructor, usability nerd, extroverted-introvert, occasional poet, autodidact, Idaho native. @rachaelrenk.

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