GHC Reflections: “Why Are We Still Geeks?” Panel – Part 3

(Trying to work toward graduation AND remember to blog is hard – sorry for the delay!!)
My favorite segment of the “Why Are We Still Geeks?” panel at Grace Hopper, part three featured professor Kim Surkan of Humanities & Gender Studies. Her discussion revolved around the current issues surrounding women in technology today, and steps being made toward remedying them.

Very early in the speech she made a memorable statement: “You have to remember, I am humanities, trying to step into your world – and let me tell you, your world is troubled”. With that statement alone, despite her not being a woman in the CS field today, you could tell how deeply she understood the problems plaguing women in technology today and hoped to remedy them.

She went on to discuss several distinct points hindering the cause of women in CS. For instance, both genders have a habit of correlating gender with ability in STEM fields, which regardless of actual skill causes a decrease in interest and  hinders abilities, which continues to increase our gender gap. In  simpler terms, both women and men perceive men as better at programming, thus women lose interest, stifle or hinder their own skills, and create an even wider divide to perpetuate this stigma.

She then cycled this concept into another called “symbolic annihilation”. She argues that the struggle there is for young women to see other women in computer science makes it difficult to protest the fact that they are underrepresented. It’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around at first: the best phrase for it is “It’s hard to protest an image that does not exist”. If we’ve never seen it, we have trouble conceptualizing it as a real problem.How can we address the problem of women entering STEM fields, if we have barely any women at all to turn to in the field for a frame of reference? Out of sight, out of mind as they might say.

One fact Dr.Surkan shared that I found startling was that Computer Science is the only STEM field that has seen a decrease in women joining in recent years. As a woman in the Computer Science field, I know we are few and far between – but to hear that trend is only becoming worse is something that makes me very sad. Any woman can be good at whatever she so chooses, but there is nothing about Computer Science as a field that makes it strictly male. I can think of plenty of areas that women can actually have an easier time conceptualizing than men due to how we process information. For instance, concurrency and object-oriented relations/definitions are things that I’ve seen women grasp more quickly. And for those who enjoy a human element – data analysis, human/computer interaction, usability, and user experience are all realms where a craving for “social” work can manifest in Computer Science – and are areas that sorely need workers, yet few Computer Science majors are as interested in. Not to put the genders in stereotypical boxes of course – I mean Grace Hopper developed the compiler – that says just how much women can contribute to the field in any area they choose!

Surkan continues by discussing subtle differencing in the language of Computer Science that one could also say contributes in part to the lack of women. The term hardware did not originate until 1958 – prior to that, computers were operated almost entirely by women! The word hardware versus software brings about a play on masculine versus feminine roles (men are “hard” and women are “softer”), and defined women solely as switchboard operators rather than “able to build computers”. This language change may have helped solidify the gender divide within Computer Science – where women are thought to be able to use the computers, but not build them or program on any level of real depth.

She follows this up with a case study of several events in the Computer Science world that have alienated women – and for me, these case studies were a turning point in how I viewed the CS world for women. I had known things can be bad, that we were few and far between – but some of these stories were beyond me. There was the 9-year-old girl at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon: who when other apps were inappropriate for someone of her age to have to see (and at least a touch objectifying to women) during demonstration, was blamed for being there – despite having built her app herself at the event. There was Anita Sarkeesian, receiving death threats for an attempt to kickstart a YouTube channel about female representation in video games. Adria Richards, who was harassed and then fired from her job for tweeting about some men making sexual jokes at a Python conference. And the more I Googled after the panel, the longer the list of stories became.

The above tied in with what she calls “brogrammer” culture – more and more startups and popular tech companies are modeling themselves in a fashion to attract young and thrill-seeking twenty-something males – to the point where the office culture resembles a fraternity house party more than corporate.<br />
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fraternity house party, and there’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be a ninja or a wizard or a Jedi (as advertisements for these job may question if you are when it comes to coding), but there are elements of those environments and words that can cause women to automatically feel excluded. Perhaps when promoting jobs companies should use a second, more general, or even women-targeted ad set in addition (calling for code queens, Python princesses, and scripting sirens) if they wish to correct these images – and let their house party style be more like game&amp;study night on the co-ed dorm floor.

When I discuss the issues of women in Computer Science today, I am constantly brought back to referencing something I learned or heard in Surkan’s panel segment and branch out my discussion from there. No one has all the answers to these issues – but she definitely helped to raise some of the problems and questions, which is always a necessary first step. More than likely I will revisit some of these issues and pose some thoughts for the future in the future – but this blog has become long enough just revisiting Surkan’s panel points.

Is there a current problem with getting women into Computer Science, and the environment for women in the field at certain locations? Certainly.
Can we fix it for the future? Definitely.
Will it happen overnight? Probably not – but if we persevere, we will overcome.

“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” – Edsger Dijkstra

GHC Reflections: Megan Smith Keynote

The second day of the Grace Hopper Celebration was kicked off by Megan Smith, vice-president of Google[x] at Google. For those unaware, Google[x] is a branch of Google devoted to more physical applications – Google Maps, Google Earth, and engineering for space innovations and methods of providing internet worldwide.

I was fascinated to find out about Google[x] – as searches for information on it yield rather sparse results. Granted, Google[x] is not in my specific field of interest – but hearing about seemingly “left-field” initiatives a company like Google is taking to expand themselves and make a difference was intriguing.

What stuck with me the most of Megan Smith’s keynote was her discussion on moonshots – which is what they see the Google[x] initiative as promoting. “Moonshots” are thinking beyond the purported limits of what can be done and aiming a little higher. One such statement was in the line of: “let’s throw away the thinking of how this product can change a million people’s lives – if we can make it change a billion people’s lives, well, then we’re talking”.

In this vein, moonshot seems to be an adage to the old inspirational saying (commonly plastered on grade school walls) stating “shoot for the moon – even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”. The idea is that if you raise your bar higher, you will likely exceed your original expectation, even if you miss the new mark. I for one, welcome someone taking that phrase and coining it into a relevant term for innovative fields.

I think the concept behind moonshots bears repeating, and while simple is often forgotten. If you’re going to create a system or technology that works on such massive scales, you’re going to have to start from the bottom up. Fixing a car so that it gets not 60mpg but 600, or even 6000 – that line of thinking requires we reconsider how the car itself works and recreate it. To some it seems like reinventing the wheel – why not just optimize what exists and save time? But “reinventing” the wheel in this complete strip-down style can yield a nonwheel – that is, something that can take the place of the wheel but isn’t, and removes many of the prior issues the wheel had. We like to think by marginally increasing the bar we will save time and money – but why not set entirely new bars that, while intensive, could put us far and away from the competition?

Overall Megan’s keynote reminded me to dig a little deeper, and not to settle for making something “better” but to shoot beyond for perfect and enjoy my landing (albeit a bit short) among the stars of outstanding when I succeed. I look forward to finding more opportunitites for moonshots in my life – and hope she inspired others to as well.

For information on the Google[x] open forum initiative, Solve for [x] which encourages moonshot thinking and collaboration, please visit https://www.solveforx.com

“Solving any problem is more important than being right” — Milton Glaser

GHC Reflections: Sheryl Sandberg Keynote

Last week I had the joy of visiting the Grace Hopper Celebration in Minneapolis, MN as a scholarship recipient. For those unaware, the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) is a conference celebrating women in computing through speakers, panels, research presentations, learning sessions, and of course – dancing. The conference was awe-inspiring – to see so many women in a field where women are extremely underrepresented coming together with a common interest and drive. I left the conference with new knowledge and new vigor, and would like to share some of my experiences.

The kickoff keynote Wednesday was by none other than Sheryl Sandberg: COO of Facebook. Anyone unfamiliar with Sheryl Sandberg can do a quick search to find how successful of a business woman she is. Bringing in a powerhouse woman like Sandberg to speak to thousands of young aspiring women in technology definitely kicked the conference off with a bang.

Sandberg discussed women’s under representation in business in general  – one of the topics she is most noted for speaking on – but tied it to technology rather elegantly as the two topics often intertwine. For me, hearing Sandberg speak was a whole new level of amazing; I have been quoting her points on the inverse popularity of women as they rise in power for quite some time now.

What was saddening is how what Sandberg said to all of us on Wednesday morning rang true throughout the entire conference: women in computing truly aren’t recognized as being as capable as their male counterparts. Almost every other keynote and session thereafter had some story come out that reflected the truth she expressed that morning.

It was also rather unsettling to see how even a woman as powerful as Sandberg and who advocates so strongly that any woman can be successful still deals with the conception of women in business and technology. She spoke of a panel she had been on where a man stated “not all women are like Sheryl – she’s competent” and another on the panel stated how having women in the workplace may tempt him. It’s a pity that we still deal with these notions in business but also the technology field – and yet they ring too true. Stories of female developers who weren’t allowed by their bosses to touch any code lest they “break it”, then upon finally doing the code completing it well were told they “must be one of the good ones” – these conceptions are true across the board of females in technology. The fact that even someone as successful as Sandberg who should be the case in point for the absurdness of such statements still having to deal with them proves how misconstrued our views of women in technology and business truly are.

There are many reasons for the gender gap and gender conceptions in technology fields (some of which I will discuss in reflections from other GHC panels and keynotes), but one thing is clear: it must be eliminated. Every developer approaches their project from a different mindset – why would we ever want to suggest that just because that mindset is female it is not valid?

Female developers have done amazing things – just look at the GHC namesake. Without a marvelously smart and driven woman like Grace Hopper, modern computing would not have been possible. Why is her achievement of the compiler shoved under the rug, much like Sandberg’s success?

Being a woman is considered this fault that must be overcome for success – but it is not a fault at all. It means our success may come in different forms, and with a different background than many of our current counterparts (read: male). Variety is the spice of life, and allowing women’s successes to be celebrated and revered could breed wondrous possibilities and diversity.

And maybe, just maybe – if young girls see women who succeeded being regarded highly for their skill and achievements rather than called “lucky” for overcoming their gender barrier…well, maybe those young girls will know just how possible it is for them to be successful in the future as well.

See Sheryl Sandberg’s Keynote Here:
http://mashable.com/2013/10/02/sheryl-sandberg-grace-hopper

Sheryl Sandberg’s acclaimed book, Lean In, has started a foundation to support women and drive their ambition.
Learn more about Lean In circles, the Lean In foundation, or order the book here: http://leanin.org/

“I want to tell any young girl out there who’s a geek, I was a really serious geek in high school. It works out. Study harder.” -Sheryl Sandberg