When I started college, I befriended all male CompSci majors – no women. I do not even remember any female classmates, except the one that totally screwed our group over by not completing her part of an assignment. Her “reason” was that she had a kid, which made me so angry – as if she had some sort of leniency clause in her university acceptance letter for having a child. When it comes to women in STEM, one of the biggest decisions for us is whether we want to be taken seriously as a scientist or start a family – as if it can’t be both! That’s why I was so pissed at my classmate, who was not apologetic at all because I didn’t have a kid so I “wouldn’t understand.” To be fair to both sexes, though, this same excuse was used by a male classmate later in my college career.
I know female professionals (in industry and academia) that have children and work a million times harder to get the same level of respect as their male colleagues. I’m sure if they heard their student say the assignment could not be completed because it’s hard having a kid, they would have falcon-punched her (with their eyes, of course). It also makes me wonder: If I were to have a child, would I be taken less seriously by my university because this mother lapsed in her academics?
Now, the problem of few women being in the technology field has many roots besides that family vs. career garbage. Gaining the interest of young girls is key. We’re already the majority of people using social networking, so it’s not like girls are afraid of computers or the Internet. Instead of writing about it in major tech blogs that have larger male followings, we should probably be preaching to the parishioners and not the choir. I’m talking university outreach to elementary schools, and following through to high school.
Another problem, too, is the perception of women now in STEM. The whole “men are better at science” thing is so trite and untrue. Getting women interested in not only technology, but in being as innovative as today’s startup leaders, is important to all future innovation. I’ve talked with CEOs and recruiters looking specifically for female web developers, and others that really do believe that the “next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg will be a young, male, alpha geek“. Diversifying venture capital and recruiting is finally something that us and the media are talking about, and soon will hopefully be acting upon.
I only write about this today because there are about a dozen articles in my RSS feed about this exact topic, most likely because of “women-only” parties and panels at SXSW last week. I became pretty passionate about the perception of women in CompSci because it was as much a shock for me going into college without many women in my class as it was for some of the boys. Being told “there’s a bet going to see how long it takes for you to change majors” is not the nicest thing to hear – and I’m known for my assertiveness, aggressiveness and dry sense of humor. It would have actually hurt less if that guy just told me I was ugly, haha. Of course, I had no one to look up to or turn to in that new environment, so I try hard to be there for current undergrad girls in our department. If you’re a woman in technology and/or science and you’re not reaching out, you’re really missing out on a great opportunity to be a role model. We know, first-hand, that there are not enough of those out there.