Women in Tech: I Have a Question…

Fiona and I were in eighth grade together. That was fergunferger years ago (as Leah McGowen-Hare likes to say). Somehow we’ve stayed friends, even though there were usually a few thousand miles between us. Recently, I swam with her and her kids at her parents’ house in NJ. Her daughter, let’s call her L, age 12, was full of questions. And information. She is a ballet dancer, going on pointe the day after this vacation. She loves her school and they go on cool field trips to farms. She thinks Amazon.com has the right business model and is going to put NetFlix out of business. Yeah, she’s 12.

Minecraft might singlehandedly change the ratio

I asked her about the popular apps for kids her age, and she lamented that she doesn’t have a phone (and Fiona kicked me under the table). Fiona chimed in thatL has an iPad Mini, so she can’t be accused of bad parenting. The social app scoop is that L is “off Twitter,” uses SnapChat, and that her peers use Facebook to connect to distant friends, but not for “hey, let’s get together” conversations. Her favorite games are Draw Something, 2048, and Minecraft (she pointed out that she doesn’t know any other girls who play Minecraft). Her brother, let’s call him W, age 9, loves Minecraft, and asked me how to install a mod and how to write one. I, of course, emailed Pat Patterson, explaining to W, “I don’t know everything, but I know people who know everything.”

It is my personal, not-so-secret mission to teach L and W to code. Last year when I saw them, I showed them Daisy the Dinosaur and was on fire about the Hour of Code. It’s possible I focused too much on L, though, because as they were leaving, W asked me, “Can boys code, too?” I assured him that they could.

This time, I recommended Google’s Made With Code, especially this video about the intersection of dance and code. They knew all about 3D printers, so they want to try making a bracelet. I have hope. Fiona has her PhD in something I can’t even pronounce, and her husband is a super smart financial wizard. Neither of them consider themselves techies. So, it’s up to me.

“I’m wondering why there aren’t as many women who code as men.”

There I was, feeling smart and cool, answering all of their questions about technology, when L hit me with the zinger: “I’m wondering why there aren’t as many women who code as men.” I stumbled. Total facepalm. I should be able to answer this, right? Nope.

I recovered and tried the pipeline angle: “Well, girls your age just don’t seem to find programming interesting; and, when you get to college and you are just one of a handful of women in a programming class, it’s intimidating; so, it’s sort of a pipeline problem.” Blank stare.

Then W offered, “A lot of women are secretaries.” Another facepalm. “Yes, that’s true. Interestingly, with Salesforce, often secretaries start administering Salesforce and realize they really like technology and then switch to doing technology as a job.” Another blank stare.

I was beat. I’d totally failed to answer her simple question, which is why I’m writing this now. We all should be prepared to answer this question in a way that a 12-year-old can understand, and in a way that encourages rather than discourages them.

It’s changing

When I got home, my wife, who is a social worker, proposed this answer: “Right now, there are less women then men who are programmers, but it’s changing. Just like some time ago when being a doctor was seen as a job only men do, that’s how some people see programming right now. But now, being a doctor is seen as a job for both men and women, and that’s where it’s going with programming.”

So, L, there’s your answer. Better late than never.

Also, if you are looking for some inspirational women who code, please read my interviews with a dozen awesome women who are Salesforce developers. My favorite part of these interviews is when they each share why they love programming: solving problems, making things, and breaking things – passions that both men and women, and girls and boys, have.

Looking for me on Twitter? I’m @rockchick322004, and I tweet about the Salesforce1 Platform and Women in Tech.

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  • mattlacey

    Yipes! That is a horribly tough question to answer, and not sure it even can be answered. I think if I was chatting to a 12 year old girl and she dropped that bomb on me, I’d have to go with something like:

    “Well for a long time more men worked than women, and although we realised it was better for everybody to have the chance to do what they want to do, but because there were more men to start with it’s taking time to fix the balance.”

    Obviously there’s way more at work than this, but I feel like tradition has a lot to answer for when it came to the very early days of computer science. On top of that of course, there’s the whole “girl’s toys” and “boy’s toys” thing… parenting has a huge effect on generations and it takes a while for changes to propagate, but it does feel like we’re heading in the right direction. If I ever have daughters they’ll be snowboard and coding before they know it!

    • MaryScotton

      Yes, tradition does have an impact here, as do deep societal “norms.” I have seen a shift in parenting approaches when it comes to gender, and try to (gently) raise awareness with my friends when they say things like “my daughter’s so bossy” (my reply, “she has executive skills”).

      Thank you for your continued support of women in tech. I can’t wait until you have kids!

    • Priscilla

      It would be better to answer that women were in computing (ENIAC, Bletchley Park, Grace Hopper, Dame Shirley, Adele Goldberg, Susan Kare, Joanna Hoffman, Kim Polese, Radia Perlman, Barbara Liskov, etc.) and that 37% of CS graduates in 1984 were women. And we are going to get back to that number or above before too long!

      • MaryScotton

        @disqus_l2fQLjm8qT:disqus – Great point! In the US we have totally failed to school our children (or at least in my experience) about influential women in history, include in tech. In fact, Steven Herod had to school me about Grace Hopper in the Code Coverage podcast that was posted today: http://www.codecoverage.org/episode-9-mary-scotton-and-diversity-in-tech-dreamforce-and-the-dev-and-admin-zones/.

        I will work to raise awareness of these leaders and to highlight the 37%. Just watched this CODE documentary trailer and they point to the popularity of the “genius geek” stereotype as a turning point for women (turning away from tech): http://buff.ly/WNUjaA. Yes, we need to break that stereotype and get that % back up!

  • loriaustex

    This is such a terrific post, for so many reasons. Would it be okay if I shared it beyond the Developer community?

    • MaryScotton

      @loriaustex:disqus Yes, please! I would love if you could share this more broadly. It definitely seems to be stirring conversation.