Every so often, the conversation about women in technology and computing - which grumbles on quietly and constantly in the background, even when the media isn't commenting on it - breaks out into mainstream reporting. The cycle generally goes like this: a new study or survey reveals the numbers of women in tech are consistently low or even dropping. People start wondering, in a concerned tone, why is this? Smarter people push the questions of what we're going to do about it. Then the backlash starts of why we have to treat the question of women in tech especially and that they're SO BORED with this same old conversation. And then the talk ebbs until it's, a few months down the road, dragged into the foreground again. But it will come back, because in all the years since the conversation was started, for all the talk, we haven't solved the problem and, worse than that, there's no clear indication we're even making any progress in making people understand what the problem is, or that there's a problem in the first place.
As you may have guessed even if you haven't seen it, the breakout has recently happened again. Research just published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concludes that it isn't the work of programming or other hyper-technical tasks that keep women out of computing fields - it's the trappings of and environment created by typical geek culture. This has touched of another round of questions about how we can change the geek stereotype to welcome women.
Let's jump right into this. Here's the thing - the stereotypes aren't changing because the majority of those who fit the stereotype want to keep it. For the typical geek, that persona is a defense against the world at large, a way to identify themselves and others like them. It's a source of defiant pride, and a method of striking back against societal standards that they, perhaps mostly correctly, feel have treated them unfairly. It's a necessity. Otherwise, they lose their standing and they're right back where they felt they were before - on the bottom rung.
I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with any of that. The problem comes in with the fact that in this paradigm, women are characterized as The Other. It's become a joke, part of the whole Geek Mythology. We chuckle at references to lonely geeks (straight and male, of course*) building girl robots in their basements. Because geeks don't talk to real girls! And girls aren't interested in robots, or computers, or technology (they only like shopping, clothes and guys with money), so of course it's hilarious to think these strange geek creatures would be able to have an useful conversation with a girl. We've culturally built this up into such a taken-for-granted meme that some self-identified geeks adopt it as fact themselves, before their own experiences have a chance to demonstrate otherwise. Instead of a wry commentary on an existing state, it has become a deliberately self-fulfilling prophecy.
With these ideas in place, it's very easy for a group to form, even unconsciously, an invisible, protective barrier around themselves that sends clear signals to anyone not visibly sealed of their tribe that the individual is not welcome. And if you are or have ever been that individual, you know where and when you're not wanted. Geek paraphernalia, even if it represents something you're genuinely interested in, can often indicate that you might encounter resistance in that type of environment.
It's not that women are turned off by "geek" things. Anyone who spends a reasonable enough time around actual women, especially those who are invovled in working with technology (they do exist, strangely enough), knows this is so far from the truth it's barely worth taking the time to disprove. I was writing Star Wars fanfiction at thirteen. I had boxes and boxes of comic books. I used to be able to rattle off the list of every captain of each Starship Enterprise. Even the ones never featured in movies or television shows. (Can I still? Wouldn't you like to know.) I'm not scared by the trappings of geek interests. But I am dissuaded by a palpable atmosphere that tells me I don't belong. I am turned off by people who don't want me around because they either don't truly believe I want or am capable of being there (the geek girl poser phenomenon) or they're intimidated by me for no reason other than I'm a girl - which I really can't (or, frankly, want to) do much about.
An unfriendly computing environment to women results in mainly two things. One, women change themselves to be unassuming and nonthreatening by dressing, talking and acting like male geeks. This works fine if it fits with the individual woman's original style, and many girl geeks are like this by natural inclination. But it creates a problem for women who aren't that way, and the fact that they have to be a certain way on pain of not being a part of the group is troubling. It's also troubling that acting like a stereotypical male geek involves, for a woman, internalizing a great deal of casual sexist talk and thought.
The other result is that women leave. Clearly, as the endless cycle of articles and studies shows, the latter is what is happening most often.
And why is this a problem? Because it's unfair to both men and women to expect them to fit preconceived ideas of behavior and ability. Because it limits both men and women's capabilities and contributions. Because as technology progresses and becomes profoundly intertwined with every aspect our lives, the responsibility and earned privilege of creating and guiding it should belong to a diverse group of people who can use the sum knowledge of their unique experiences, backgrounds and preferences to improve the way it works for everyone.
Now for the good news - I personally feel this stereotypical geek persona is outdated and those who cling to it are in the minority. While I have in the past been on the wrong side of it, I now know, both in person and in the larger tech community, many more men who are actively working to make the environment much less male-centric and who genuinely appreciate the contributions of women who share their interests. I know men who stand up and say something when they hear sexist remarks. I know fathers in the tech community who are raising their daughters and their sons with different ideas than have been typically taught in the past. I know men who want a more open, diverse and rewarding community for their own sakes as well as the sake of women. These men deserve more credit than they're currently getting.
Unfortunately, we're still so fixated on laughing at geeks, and teaching geeks to laugh at themselves, that the serious underlying issues - the resolution of which could benefit us all - go unattended and the men fighting the good fight go unrecognized and some women still get left out in the cold. Maybe next time this topic comes around, we'll be at least a little farther along.
*(Frankly, this is the problem with anyone who isn't a white, straight male - or isn't a straight Asian or Indian male, the only other accepted racial groups in the sterotype. Which, of course, has become a limiting and offensive stereotype of its own. Have you taken a look lately at the numbers of African Americans, Hispanics or GLBTQ people in tech? But since this point is centered on women, we'll stay there for the time being.)