Geek Girls

Someone posted on Slashdot about an article in US News & World Report about the age-old numbers problem when it comes to gender distribution in computer science. That is to say, there’s a lot of dudes and not a lot of chicks. Well, duh.

As a woman engineer or a woman in computer science or whatever you want to call me, I always find it interesting (read: stupid) how most people look at this problem. First of all, it’s just kind of mean that the primary motivating factor for tech firms to solve this problem is that, simply put, they’re running out of guys. Restrictions because of homeland security issues and growing hiring needs in general because of the tech boom are leaving an increasingly smaller pool of people to pick from when it comes to filling tech positions. So, let me get this straight: you can’t fill your tech jobs with foreign nationals anymore and you’re running out of guys in the US, so now you decide that hey, there’s a whole half of the population that we haven’t tapped. This is like when men were sent off to war, there was suddenly a workforce shortage so they decided to get women to work in factories and the like. It’s like they’re saying, “Uh, the boys have been doing all the heavy lifting lately when it comes to computers, but we’ve got a lot of work to do, so you ladies better start pulling your own weight.” Gee, I thought that having a workforce in tech more representative of the general population– at least when it comes to gender– would be a good thing for tech no matter what. Or that it might just generally be important to show impressionable young women that girls can do anything that boys can do and that having a vagina doesn’t disqualify you from being part of one of the most important, influential, not to mention lucrative, industries ever.

But even if we put aside the somewhat selfish motivation for trying to attract women to CS, most of the programs put into place seem like things men came up with because that’s what they think women want or need. Because they think that the issue is how women feel rather than what women know. Yes, although I never took advantage of groups like these while I was at Stanford, these “support groups” (how fucking sad to call it that– is it a disorder to be a woman in CS?) and mentorship programs might be helpful to many women because they feel more comfortable being around other women. But like I’ve said a thousand times, “separate, but equal” is rarely ever actually equal and getting women in CS together to make them feel better about being women in CS doesn’t solve the big picture problem.

Any type of gap like this starts at a much earlier stage– before entering the workforce, before college, before high school. It starts on the very first day people around you begin to shape your learning, inside and outside of the classroom. Ten, fifteen years ago, we all recognized that boys tended to be more interested in and excel more at math and science because they were simply encouraged to do so and girls were explicity discouraged. This naturally extends to CS. Just because kids today are digital natives– they don’t know a world without computers and the Internet– doesn’t mean that girls and boys have the same interaction with computers. You know why women feel so insecure and inadequate when they take programming classes in college? You know why women feel like they’re always behind and they’re just not as good at it as everyone else? Because we’re not as good at it as everyone else (at least at that point). And you know why that is? Because we haven’t been doing it our whole fucking lives. Just because someone grew up using computers her whole life doesn’t mean she knows anything about, has ever been exposed to anything that’s actually remotely related to computer science. How many male CS students already know how to program when they come to college? How many male CS students breeze through introductory classes because they’ve been programming in C or C++ for years and have already been exposed to some engineering fundamentals? Women who feel like they’re drowning even in introductory CS classes feel that way because they are drowning– they’re playing catch up and with the rigor of most engineering programs, it’s not an easy thing to do. Support groups might make women feel better because they realize that other women feel insecure too, but it doesn’t really solve the problem of why they feel insecure in the first place. If an overweight person feels insecure because he’s overweight, it might help to have him be around other overweight people so that he doesn’t feel alone, but you know what? He’s still overweight and that’s something that still needs to be addressed.

And on top of that, women miss out on all the random, but valuable things you learn on the side from talking tech with your friends. When a bunch of CS guys are together, they’ll talk about everything geeky, from programming languages to gaming to operating system choices to new technologies (ahem, e.g., file-sharing). I don’t know if it’s the estrogen in the air or the breasts that throw them off, but when a girl comes around, even if she is a CS girl, suddenly the conversation changes. Maybe CS guys think that a girl wouldn’t want to talk about these things. Maybe they think that they can impress her by trying to show her that they’re not just CS geeks. Maybe so, maybe not, but the gender gap isn’t going to get any smaller if both men and women don’t start getting their acts together– men need to start actively including women in their old boys network and women need to stop shying away from all-male geek circles and just get in there and learn. Get involved.

Case in point: my department did some brown bag lunch sessions with the Society of Women Engineers at Stanford and we started with a free-for-all “what do you want to learn about?” session. Now, here’s a group of about forty or fifty Stanford engineering majors– not a group to be taken lightly– and what do they want to learn about? How to FTP, how to set up a Web server, how to make a Web page. Shit like that. These are things that aren’t taught in class, but that most CS students know how to do– you know why? Because they sit around and learn how to do it on their own or pick it up from their friends. I realized that I knew how to do all these things because I was lucky enough to find a circle of friends freshman year that happened to be male CS students and more importantly, weren’t afraid to talk tech in front of me, with me. And when I didn’t know something, I, being the fearless young woman I am, would ask and they would tell me all about it. They would show me. And without being condescending about it! At the end of the day, so much is learned from just interacting with your peers and if you set CS women off to one side because you think that it will make them feel better, they’re never going to be exposed to the valuable things they can learn from being around CS men and they’re never going to be able to pass on those things to other women. The gender gap will never get smaller.

Ever notice that girls who grow up with lots of brothers often have (among other interests) traditionally “boy” interests? Like playing or following sports? It’s because they’re exposed to it growing up. And they’re not afraid to talk about sports or play sports with men later in life because they are confident about they’re own knowledge and abilities. You don’t create a divide between girls and boys and later in life, you don’t have a divide between men and women. You can see it with the digital divide too– giving a kid from a traditionally disadvantaged background a computer when he gets to high school might help the situation a little bit, but the real solution is not to simply donate some computers, but to close the math divide, the reading divide, the food divide, the housing divide. You empower them early so that they do not fall behind later.

You won’t be able to truly, effectively close the CS gender gap unless we work to close the gender gap in general, unless we work to encourage all types of learning equally among boys and girls from an early age. We won’t have to have mentorship programs or have to actively recruit women into computer science– women will naturally be attracted to CS because they will have been exposed to it early on and been able to cultivate that ability and interest as they grew up. And when they get to college, they won’t feel insecure or like they’re catching up because they won’t be catching up. They’ll know just as much as their male counterparts and have had the same opportunities to have the proper preparation for a CS curriculum. They won’t need a support group because they’ll be able to support themselves. They won’t need to find female CS role models because their gender will no longer separate them. To borrow from affirmative action, it will level the playing field and by providing equal opportunity, we’ll come closer to having equal results.