This piece is cross-posted in Wellesley Underground.
I listened to a student presentation today about how important it is to encourage women to pursue computer science. I listened with an open mind and suppressed the urge to correct “all girls school” (it’s definitely “all women’s college” – who doesn’t know that?!) and “women don’t…” (women are not a solitary entity) in favor of internalizing their message. The presenters talked about the stereotypical relationship women have with tech and computer science the way one would a fear of dogs. “If we can show them that it’s not scary and that it can be fun, women will love computer science. They’ll be cuddling and playing fetch in no time!”
There is a fundamental flaw in this ideology. This ideology isn’t about developing environments for women to pursue fields that interest them, uninterrupted. This ideology is about encouraging women to subscribe to society’s ideals about what it means to be a woman – oh yea, and pursue tech. If women see that tech can be easy and fun (things society assumes women are capable of) they will be comfortable pursuing technology.
Tech can be easy. Women can do easy. Therefore women can do tech.
I often ponder the factors that contribute to tech being a male-dominated field. I recognize that my upbringing (predominantly Black upper middle-class suburb), subject interests (always computer science), and formal education (Wellesley College) skew my perception. I’m even in a co-ed, tech-related masters program that is predominantly women. So, when we talk about the underrepresentation of women in tech I think, “but there are SO many brilliant women in tech around me“. I have to remind myself that this is not the norm. That there are entire business, academic departments, and development teams that can count their women developers with one hand in their pocket.
So I ponder. Today I had a revelation.
I’m sure you’ve heard about Satya Nadella’s complete screw up, in telling women not to ask for raises, but to let karma bring it to them. He attended the prestigious (and well attended) Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, sat on a stage in front of several women, and advised them to let karma handle the finances. In a world of women being told to Lean In, Nadella suggests we leave altogether.
As I thought about my colleagues in the audience listening to a successful man encourage them to not be pushy or aggressive, to wait it out and let things come to them it hit me: society refuses to recognize that women can do hard things. Of course women can navigate salary negotiations, pursue STEM career paths, and climb the professional ladder. (Also, do not soften the things women can do by throwing in “and have dinner on the table by 6!” Who doesn’t know that?!) The gender divide is not the professional equivalent of cynophobia, and cannot be solved with soft strokes behind the ears or puppy licks.
People are working to create environments in which women can pursue tech. Successful allies in the field (let’s just say men) support and extend the message because diversity is good. We are effectively asking women to subscribe to a system that has systematically put them at a disadvantage, and promise that tech will be different. Women in tech are brilliant, powerful unicorns until someone tells them to let karma handle the finances.
Every time a woman is discouraged away from tech, I imagine some patriarchal figure cooing “Don’t you worry your pretty little head off about that.” Nadella is basically saying that being a nice gal will get you ahead. But wait, didn’t we learn that nice finishes last? That hard work, determination, and pursuing the rewards you rightfully deserve are respected and encouraged in the professional world. The Boys have different rules and even in their advice to women, women still get 77 cents to the dollar.
A statement was released. Nadella took it back. But does that change anything? Not really.
While it’s disappointing that we’re still having elementary discussions about gender equality, its important that we continue to show up. That we encourage women (in and out of tech) to understand the issues, care about the impact, and show up.Create forums for successful women to advocate for collective interests and offer informed advice to other women. Push girls to pursue the things that interest them, to become women that show up for the things that interest them.
And anyone will tell you: when you show up, you better show out.