Thursday, September 13, 2007

Widening the gates

As a geek and a female, I had to have the lack of women in IT brought to my attention by others, specifically, by male geeks. I have spent so much of my life pursuing interests where I was the only female that I stopped noticing a long time ago. I was the only girl in my electronics and small engines class. I was the only girl in the miniatures gaming group (Napoleonics). I was the only girl in most of my RPG groups (Traveller, Car Wars, ITL, etc) at the local gaming shop. I was the only girl in the computer lab at school. I was the only girl I knew who, not only owned a Commodore 64, but had done some programming on it (a program in BASIC for calculating sidereal time.)

I've spent my life being the go-to person in the office for computer-related questions (from "why doesn't my password work": check your capslock, to "someone needs to move and administer our NT network": I guess I'm someone, to "we need a website for the office fitness group":I can do that). Yet, I never thought of myself as being "in IT" until I got involved in the Python community. I jumped in with both feet, starting to present to conferences, and advocating for everyone I knew to learn Python, the typical response of a new convert. I was thrilled to have found a language that seemed simple enough to use without having to know a lot first, but that was also really powerful, that kept growing with me as my tasks and requirements and skills grew more complex. Yet, it wasn't until I'd been to several conferences, and been asked by guys why there weren't more women at the conferences, that I even noticed that the lines *were* pretty short to the bathrooms at tech conferences.

So I started researching the question. Because, I couldn't imagine why there weren't lots of other women here - after all, I'm here. At first, I blamed the women. They're too self-involved, too shallow, too interested in shopping etc. But, I knew that wasn't really the case - I've met a lot of incredibly hard-working, intelligent, deep women in SF and other areas of life. They're just not interested in computers, just like they're not interested in cars. Well, most women I know drive. Most of them use telephones, fax machines, copy machines, and major appliances every day. Most women I know use computers every day nowadays, so it's not unfamiliarity. With a lot of new web apps, women are increasingly using social software, creating websites, etc etc. I realized I had prejudices about "normal women" (meaning non-geeks) and that I had to confront those prejudices. And one of the things I came to realize in investigating this lack of other women was how similar I am to other women in IT.

It's not been easy to admit to myself that I suffer, like many women in and out of IT, from low self-efficacy (perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance), from imposter syndrome (inability to internalize successes, fear of being caught out as a fraud). I tend to view computers more as means than ends. I entered the IT field via a non-traditional pathway (I didn't go into CS in college, I kinda came into IT sideways). I value the community aspects of programming as much as the language itself (a less welcoming community might easily have turned me off to programming), and I considered programming to be incredibly difficult (most non-CS-major women undergrads rated CS as more difficult than becoming a surgeon! I wasn't quite that bad, but I did consider it more difficult than, say, a psych or biology major.) I tend to define IT as "stuff I don't do" (even though I'd created databases, administered an NT network, created a website, etc, I hadn't considered myself to be "in IT".)

Realizing these things about myself has been difficult, but enlightening. I am more willing to accept the barriers that other women face in getting into IT, now that I've acknowledged those barriers and obstacles in myself. I am more motivated to find ways to overcome those barriers, through scaffolding (starting with a simple language like Python to learn basic concepts before diving into the complex language issues of C); emphasis on pair programming and sprints and other social aspects of programming; acknowledgment of non-programming aspects of IT; etc. I have heard these described as "sexist" or "dumbing down". Having lived through the obstacles and experienced the positive effects of these methods in my own life, I don't accept that. Presenting IT as something that only the most motivated, self-confident, autonomous individualists can really be into and everything else is "dumbing down for the ladies" is precisely why we don't have more diversity in IT. It's this attitude (from both women and men) that keeps many of us out, and keeps us feeling we don't belong here. Providing pathways to entry for those who are less self-confident, for those who value usefulness or social interaction, is not "dumbing it down". It's widening the gates, and opening up IT to a more diverse group of women and men. If that's sexist, then I guess I can live with that.

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