Last fall I attended the very fashionable and mildly geek-chic Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing event, now home to “Nadella-gate.”
There, I observed a sea of 8,000 women aged eighteen to eighty who were there for one express purpose: to understand the technology landscape and future of computing and how it may affect their respective lives–career and otherwise.
My thinking around gender inequality (in this particular case, with regard to the technology industry) tends to align with GoDaddy CTO Elissa Murphy’s thinking when we sat down at the conference to discuss gender gaps, among other things: “I never got the memo that I wasn’t supposed to go to the computer lab, or play baseball, or do any other thing I wanted to do. Being a girl never had anything to do with it.”
On the flip side, as Erica Lockheimer, Director of Engineering Growth at LinkedIn, pointed out: “When you talk to younger generations, the stereotypes about being a girl in computing still exist: we’re introverted geeks who lack social skills and just want to stare at a computer screen all day. It’s in everything from the things they watch on TV to what they see on the Internet.”
What is the truth about why more girls don’t pursue engineering careers? Is it because men are holding them back? Is it because “the system” (that beast! The thing we blame when we can’t identify a culprit) is sending the wrong messages?
If we put gender aside for a moment, and focus on the benefits of diversity within industries and organizations, the thinking ever so slightly shifts into a solutions-based paradigm. The by-product of this modification is a distinct emphasis on a person’s love for a particular subject matter, area of expertise, or knowledge base that allows them to thrive. Along with continued discourse and a general awareness of “unconscious bias,” I am almost certain that if we focused on the following things, we would see seismic shifts in terms of the number of people (who happen to be female) who pursue careers in engineering and other technical roles.
EDUCATION: Thinking about computing education as art, rather than just science
It’s very easy to get stuck in our thinking that pursuing a degree in computer science means one is only adept with numbers. But the truth is that “coding” is actually very similar to learning a language; a language that happens to be numbers based. When curricula systematically approach engineering from the standpoint of science or math, they fundamentally deny those with a propensity for learning languages or a passion for art the opportunity to pursue this path. We have done a disservice by talking about STEM in terms of left-brains, rather than a creative pursuit that requires a different set of skills, often soft skills, in order to master it.