For several years now, I’ve wanted to create an initiative to promote women in technology, particularly in programming. A few months ago, with the help of many others, I finally started to do it.
From the beginning, we’ve had a number of questions and objections–some gentle, some not–related to the intent in doing such a thing. I was prepared to deal with these. Like it or not, at this point in the culture and industry game, there are a lot of preconceived notions floating around, in both women’s and men’s minds, about why we should or shouldn't create an initiative like this and, in many cases, there is a measure of solid experience and reasoning behind them. I think it’s the responsibility of anyone taking on this battle to acknowledge the existing context, and address the concerns it raises. I’ll tell anyone who wants to know, and probably some who don’t, what exactly I intend to do with this initiative and why I think the tired old issue of “women in technology” really matters. At the very least, I think what we're building should be appreciated or judged based on what it really stands for instead of what it doesn't.¹
The project I and the other wonderful people who have jumped on board began is now Girl Develop It Columbus, the new Columbus chapter of the Girl Develop It program started recently in New York City. We designed it specifically to attract women students and provide a female-friendly space to learn programming subjects that typically are dominated by men in both professional and academic fields. We also intend to change the stereotype of a what makes a “programmer” by actively opening it up to people from different backgrounds, ages, and, yes, genders. We have just begun to offer a series of weekly classes introducing programming and HTML/CSS, with plans for more of the same plus more advanced topics and seminars - all with an emphasis on maintaining a low-pressure, encouraging environment.
For my part, I had some particular reasons for jump-starting this program at this particular time. I’m at a point in my jumbled tech career where I finally had the stability and luxury to seriously focus on where I wanted to go next. Where I wanted to go, however, circled back to a path I had begun years ago, when a certain artsy chick started to teach herself HTML and decided she could leap headfirst into a computer science major. It was an experiment with mixed results, and, eventually, unrelated life circumstances closed the door on it. But I grew increasingly aware, as time went by, that I felt I had failed in what I wanted to do. I wanted to try again. As a working single mother, however, I had even more misgivings than I had before about my suitability to do so. Except I also have a strong sense that no individual’s circumstances should dictate or limit what their abilities can accomplish. So I extrapolated that into the foundation of our new classes. So far, it seems to be working pretty well. Our first introduction to programming class sold out in less than four days and amassed a waiting list almost the size of another class. The HTML/CSS similarly filled up, with many more asking about future class plans. The positive response I’ve heard from women who have long wanted to try to learn these subjects but thought it simply wasn’t possible for them has been greater than even I anticipated. It seems fairly evident that there’s an under-served group just waiting out there, eager to learn.
So, now, however, let’s extrapolate that into the larger context, which, as I mentioned earlier, is the heavily mine-laden field of why the women in technology question even matters in the first place. There’s been a lot of backlash against the idea of specifically promoting women in technology, and, also as I said earlier, it’s not entirely unjustified. A lot of the decisions I made in how I would contribute to my program stemmed from thinking carefully about the best way to do navigate that.
For example, in the case of Girl Develop It Columbus, I never had any thought that “encouraging women” == “keeping men out.” I think there can be value in a woman-only space, but that wasn’t really what I was personally aiming for. We have and welcome men as students, and at least half our teaching staff, if not more, are men. Including men in the process of and conversation about building a richer community via encouraging women to join not only simply makes sense from a perspective of re-balancing power, but I’ve heard many men say they’ve wanted to help but don’t know how, or don’t know what they’re “allowed” to do. Part of creating a comfortable atmosphere for women is creating a comfortable atmosphere for men to ask questions and be involved. Not to mention it also satisfies that general principle of equality. Another interesting item is that many women I talked to about the project were hesitant to participate themselves until I explained it wasn’t a girls-only club. The reasons why this ends up being the case would probably comprise a post in themselves, but it seems clear that, on both sides of the fence, working together on this issue is more attractive than not.
Another point almost always brought up in the women-in-technology discussion is the question of why we have to prattle on about the women. Maybe women just don’t want to be in technology? Why should they get special treatment? How do we know this is even a real problem?
The simple answer is we know this is a real problem because a pretty decent amount of research has been done on the subject.² We know the numbers of women in these fields is low and we know there are factors working other than simple disinclination. But, to take it further, the bigger answer is that we’ve got the idea of both “what women want” and “special treatment” completely wrong. Women aren’t a monolithic entity but individuals who make decisions based on a variety of factors unique to them as individuals. Making sure the playing field is level so that all women are truly making a choice about what they do want as opposed to what they are told they can and can’t do? Not special treatment. Correcting an artificially-caused cultural imbalance? Not special treatment. In fact, targeting these two areas for improvement is one of the best things we can do to ensure the field of technology operates as a true meritocracy should.
I think that if you care about having a true meritocracy, you should put your effort and time where your mouth is and make sure there aren’t any artificial structures surrounding your work that allows anyone to get by doing less work than another at the same skill level. Yes, women should have to work hard to accomplish what they want to. But that hard work should get them exactly as far as the same amount of work would get an equally capable man. No one should have to work hard just to get past meaningless bullshit just for a chance to do the real work. Because when people are fighting to just have the same benefits that come with a like-minded community, built-in networking and ready assistance, that come to the majority without them even asking for or realizing it–and by people in this case we could be talking about women, African-Americans, LGBT or any tech minority–they are losing that time they could use to do the work.
And that’s what the point of all this is to me. I have no personal interest in inflating numbers of women in programming to hit an arbitrary quota. I have no personal interest in creating a walled garden for women only. I do think that seeing more women in technology would be cool, and I do think that designating a women-only space could be a valuable step in the process. But neither of these is in any way, shape or form the real goal.
The real goal here is a simple one. It’s to make our work better. That’s it. When we start caring and understanding how our work affects, needs and contributes to society, and how we can use that to our advantage, we start seeing all the connections between individuals, community and what we do. Caring about those connections does nothing but strengthen us as individuals, and as a community, and it strengthens what we do. By applying the true principles of a meritocracy, by enriching our base of experience, values and skills, and by improving methods of internal and external communication, education and discussion, we can make our work better.
And if making work better isn’t your primary concern, I rather think that the question of whether or not women belong in technology is not the one we should be asking.
Note: this is obviously a huge, nuanced topic, and there are several things in here that deserve expansion. I plan to write in more detail about these in the future. Input on them is welcome.¹ That said, keep in mind that while other participants are more or less on the same page, we all bring our own experience and ideas to the project. These are just mine. ² If you're inclined to read more, I've collected quite a few online resources to read over the years over at Delicious.