Geek Girls: STEM, Stereotypes and Women’s History
8.3.11 | In a discussion earlier this week of girls sweeping the first Google Science Fair, we mentioned Ken Auletta’s article in The New Yorker on Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and the lack of women in Silicon Valley. The story is worth another look for some eye-opening statistics as well as familiar anecdotes that go a long way in explaining the barriers girls face in pursuing STEM fields.
Drawing from one of Kara Swisher’s posts at All Things Digital, Auletta notes a frighteningly common trait among new companies: Neither Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Groupon or Foursquare has a female director on its board. Neither does PayPal, a virtual veteran. Apple has one (out of seven); Amazon has one (out of eight); and Google is practically a trailblazer with two (out of nine).
Auletta talked with several women about why this is the case:
One reason there are few female executives in Silicon Valley is that few women become engineers. In the United States, less than twenty per cent of engineering and computer-science majors are women. Girls are said to think that software and video games and computer programming are for guys. “Growing up,” Mark Zuckerberg’s older sister Randi told me, “my brother got video games and I got dolls.” For girls, there is a stigma attached to engineering, Marissa Mayer, who is now a vice-president at Google, says. “They don’t want to become the stereotype of all-night coders, hackers with pasty skin.” Michelle Hutton, who is the president of the international Computer Science Teachers Association, says, “Computer science is seen as a very masculine thing”—just “as girls don’t want to be garbage collectors because that’s seen as a boys’ thing.”
Hollywood also deserves some of the blame. Several female computer-science majors at Stanford pointed to the depiction of women in films like “The Social Network,” where the boys code and the girls dance around in their underwear.
Such stereotypes are slowly being demolished, but it’s also worth reminding girls that it wasn’t always that way. In a Montreal Gazette story on lack of women working in technology fields, Liesl Barrell, an organizer of the group Girl Geeks, notes that women once played a larger role:
“In the ’50s and ’60s, women made up about 30 per cent of those working in technology, but then something societal happened where we put out this image that coding is only done by socially awkward males,” said Barrell, who is an account manager with the social-media marketing firm Twist Image. “I know a lot of women that are excellent programmers and I also know a lot of male programmers who aren’t socially awkward.”
In a blog post at the company site of Fog Creek Software, Anna Lewis takes a closer look at women in computer science, going back to the 1960s when computer programming was portrayed as women’s work, before addressing the gender breakdown of Fog Creek’s internship applicants and hires.
“We know that, even if the number of women majoring in Computer Science is really on the rise, it will probably take some time before we see such an increase fully reflected in the number of female applicants we attract and hire,” writes Lewis.
For more on what it’s like for a young woman pursuing computer science today, read to the bottom of Lewis’s fact-filled post for an interview with Leah Hanson, a Johns Hopkins University student and the only woman on Fog Creek’s internship team—in fact, she’s the only woman on Fog Creek’s entire technical staff.
It’s interesting reading Hanson on the value of mentors—a point that comes up frequently in The New Yorker article from different angles—and how she got interested in computer science in the first place:
Q: Why do you think younger girls or college-age women don’t go into computer science?
Leah: Well, I used to be baffled at how they could miss seeing how awesome programming and CS in general are, but there’s a bunch of things that seem to contribute to that. For example, women seem to give up sooner even in everyday situations with technology. Like, it’s socially acceptable for a woman to give up on technology and say, “Oh I can’t figure out how this computer thing works.” My friends who are girls ask for help to fix their computers normally because it’s acceptable for them not to be able to do it. They don’t realize that I’m just going to google the answer anyway! They think I already know the answer! Whereas I think most guys would be embarrassed to admit that they can’t fix their computers. Having experience with going through the frustration of trying to get some piece of technology to work, and eventually succeeding, builds skills that you need for working with technology and for debugging.
Also, most girls don’t really get computers of their own when they’re young. It seems like sometimes the family computer is bought mainly for the boy to use and then he’s kind of forced to share it with his sister. That means that girls can’t experiment on computers. You need your own computer because you have to be able to possibly break it while you’re trying new stuff, without getting in trouble. For my sixteenth birthday, I got to build my own computer with my dad and then I could have all the time I wanted on it and break it or whatever. Until I had complete control of my own computer, I never had any interest in trying Linux; when someone else is responsible for keeping your computer functioning, and does a good job of it, there’s little incentive to try something like a different OS, since you’d have to convince other people that it’s a good idea to mess with what’s currently working.
The Huffington Post recently published a piece by Lisa Bloom, “How to Talk to Little Girls,” that advises readers to avoid the impulse of telling a girl how pretty she looks. Instead, ask what she’s reading.
It’s excellent advice, though I might add another question: What are you building?
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