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: “Why Are We Still Geeks?” Panel – Part 2

In the second portion of the “Why are We Still Geeks?” panel at GHC, Brenda Laurel took center stage of the discussion, speaking out passionately about our portrayal of women as “professionals” – and what this decided imagery can do for our perceptions. She used the Grace Hopper poster as her example, commenting on details such as polished nails and suits – this serialized ideal of the business professional.

While at times her discussion seemed a bit out of left field or reaching, I felt she did have a very valid point in that we should be allowed to look “ourselves” and still be perceived as competent and professional. Of course we should dress workplace appropriate – but why must workplace appropriate for women include makeup? Why do so many images portraying business professionals show women in the 3-piece suit while men are able to wear khakis and polos in an ever-increasing amount of media? Why is pulled back hair considered professional – but pigtails (still pulled back) are not? When did these rather archaic lines become drawn between “appropriate” and “not” when some are rather silly when given a second glance?

Women should be allowed to dress in a way that is workplace appropriate but still expresses their sense of style and self – as for women, we often garner quite a bit of confidence from our dress. She stressed the importance of doing great work, being yourself, and allowing that to be noticed by those who will appreciate it – a valid point, even in a world with a need for a level of base professionalism. Who would want to work somewhere where their sense of individuality isn’t – on some level – appreciated at all?

Of course, Laurel’s discussion for those in the panel was a bit further seeming that we should be able to dress “any which way” that so suits us – to quote, we should&nbsp; “deny power to the spectacle “status quo” image of success” and “put our own self representations out”.

This is where I feel she loses me a bit. I agree, as I’ve stated above, that we should be allowed some semblance of freedom within the boundary of professionalism to express ourselves – and that often the media portrayal of that image is far too streamlined to a specific cut-and-dry image (the “power suit” woman – when so often many women where a nice dress or blouse to their jobs and are equally as successful). However, I do believe that there is a right for a company to have a dress code – again, some may be considered outdated or even bordering on archaic, but a business has a right to have an image they wish to convey. I don’t believe, however, that image should be allowed to fully mask the individual inside (whom they hired!). Even students in schools with dress codes often have some way to express – be it buttons their backpack, funny socks, hairstyle/color, or fun jewelery. If the overall “look” is being adhered to, why can’t someone be trusted with some freedom to express themselves?

While I wasn’t entirely sure how this discussion itself circled back to being geeks, I can see some correlation with perhaps our dress constructing an archetype?
Regardless, and even accounting for my disagreeing on certain levels with Laurel’s message, this section of the panel provided a good platform to consider the woman in the workforce dress code, and to hope we can continue to find and gain new ways of expressing ourselves in our dress while adhering to levels of professionalism.

“Don’t be into trends. Don’t make fashion own you, but you decide what you are, what you want to express by the way you dress and the way to live” – Gianni Versace

What Girls’ Toys are Really Lacking

I wanted to take a break from my Grace Hopper reflections for this blog, as I think during the holiday season it is especially pertinent. I was wrapping Christmas presents for my extended family when this thought dawned on me – and with all the articles and bemoaning of the “pink aisle”, it seemed a worthy time to add my two cents.

The dreaded “pink aisle” – for those unaware, it is a nickname for the girls toy aisle, as rolling past it in any store you will most likely see a large wall of pure, unadulterated hot pink. Is the pink the problem though? Or is there something more at play?

While I wrapped up the latest mishap in the Barbie-to-Bratz-gone-wrong saga – Monsters High, my problems with the pink aisle hit me like a ton of bricks. I was reading the back of the doll’s boxes – Abby Bominable and some Poltergeist one for those who’ve manhunted the dolls this holiday season – and on the back I noticed mugshots like yearbook pictures, where the doll in question mentioned who they hated, who was their friend, etc. Miss Poltergeist had Abby as her “BFF”, but Abby did not reciprocate such feelings, instead some mermaid also blue-skinned buddy named Lagoona was hers. I commented on this to my dad as he walked past, who laughed and said “it sounds just like high school”. Of course, the dolls were high school girls, but something about that statement fit the pieces together to me.

Girls toys promote conformity. Boys toys promote imagination.<br />
Cut and dry, it clicked. Before anyone thinks I’m jumping to conclusions (and of course, there’s always going to be outliers in the equation), let me break it down.

Almost every popular girls toy most seasons is some variation of Barbie/Cabbage Patch/Friendship-Super-High-School-Buddies/Bratz … the picture of the generic doll souped up to whatever is relevant this year comes to mind. Yet most of these dolls, while at times promoting exploration, have gone the way of having one central theme: how important being liked is. No, maybe they mask it as the importance of friendship (always a good thing to learn), or making memories and finding yourself with friends, but at the heart of every one of these toys is a glaring message if you dig deep enough: you need people to like you in order to be worthwhile.

Even My Little Pony – one of the less blatantly gender specific toys of our era despite its pinkness (as evidenced by brony culture) – the tagline is “Friendship is Magic”. Of course, the show teaches a deeper message – love and tolerance despite differences, honing ones talents and using them to help others. In all actuality it is probably one of the least representative franchises out there for this phenomena.

That is, until Equestria Girls is taken into account – blatantly following the trends of the other competitors just in time for the holidays. Of course, Equestria Girls the TV Show has yet to actually have any air time -so it’s still undetermined if it will be a high school show actually maintaining the high school show archetype, or follow more closely the vein of MLP:FiM.

Moving back to the point though – these girl’s toys as they stand don’t really promote individualism, encourage creative scenarios/problem solving, or tell them much other than that they need to be popular. With girl’s toys you’re given a doll with an outfit and a purse/day-planner/laptop/desk – some sort of school/home and fashion accessory. What story is there to imagine up for that doll beyond, well, high school drama?

Boys get action figures with laser blasters – you can shoot the laser blaster at the crocodile you got three holidays ago, shoot it at your brother, shoot it at the dog, pair him up with the superhero from another franchise entirely….the stories are endless.

Put a high school doll with another high school doll and the only story is cross-high school drama.
Even adding in toys like ponies, unicorns, fairy princesses – there are little ways to explore them besides accessorizing them in the girl’s aisle.

Even dress up toys and the ideas children have while wearing them reinforce this concept. When a boy dresses in a ninja turtle costume or a Batman mask, if asked why he is more than likely to say he wants to be Batman “so he can do anything” – or more kid-maginatively – so he can “fight off the evil zombie hoard outside the living room”. If you ask a girl
why she wants to be in a princess costume, it’s so “she can be pretty
and play dress-up with the sparkliest clothes” or “so everyone will love
her”. Or craft toy kits, while fueling artistic creativity, typically
only teach girls the same message that “pretty-fying” is important and
are typically geared again, toward sharing or playing with their friends
– not exploring their own individual creativity, but creating together
and thus sometimes stifling their true exploration (not to say that
group play is a bad thing – but children also should grow their own
talents).

What girl’s toys really lack is opening their minds to something more than the same old message. That how you look is the most important, that you need to fit in to be significant. Boy toys have samurais, pirate ships, ancient crypts, and plenty of gadgets and weapons to explore with – they encourage imaginatively dreaming up new scenarios, and believing in oneself. Boys also get more villain toys – lessons in overcoming adversity and never quitting come to mind (though granted, the villain archetype is a bit black and white compared to real life). Boys are taught that things are about what they want – what they can dream up, and that they are more than capable of achieving them. Girls toys teach the importance of sticking with your “pack” and reinforce staying in the same boxes of the high school, the home, the pretty pink vacation yacht.

In my eyes it’s not the “pinkness” of the pink aisle that leads girls astray. It’s the message that conformity is key. Imagination fuels exploration and learning – some of the best engineers in the world have huge, vividly creative imaginations. When we hand girls toys that tell them to pay attention to what others think and not stray “outside the box” – how can we question the lower numbers of women in STEM fields? We never used toys that taught them to dream outside the friendship circle, to be their own person, and to make their own stories and be problem-solving heroines, rather than gossiping schoolgirls. And of course when these messages of conformity are drilled in – if they never see women in STEM, they won’t stray from the “normal path”.

Don’t hate the pink aisle for its pink, glitter, and unicorns – franchises like My Little Pony have proven that the pink is not the problem and that it can break gender walls.
Instead, wonder why the unicorns can’t have laser blasters, and the dolls can’t go anywhere beyond the mall, the classroom, or the sparkly mansion. Check back with me on the damage the pink aisle does when we see the diversity of possibilities those fuchsia boxes hold matches what we offer boys.

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by its lapels” – Maya Angelou

Monsters High (c) Mattel, My Little Pony (c) Hasbro, Justice League (c) DC Comics

GHC Reflections: “Why Are We Still Geeks?” Panel – Part 1

One exciting Friday panel was on the topic of “Why Are We Still Geeks?” (we being Computer Scientists – especially women), and more specifically, how we can remedy this perception. The three speakers present were Maria Klawe, Brenda Laurel, and Kim Surkan. Their diversity of backgrounds in computer science, gender studies, and media really brought a depth of discussion to the table.

First to speak was Maria Klawe, and she discussed her personal attempts to remedy this stigma. Much of the discussion came back to media – we don’t see many computer scientists (let alone female ones) in media so we subconsciously disregard that they exist as more than the stereotypes that surround them (geeks, antisocial, etc). Her idea was that a television show following the life of a computer programmer (albeit dramatized in some fashion – not unlike criminal justice in NCIS, anthropology in Bones, behavioral psychology in Criminal Minds, or academia in Big Bang Theory, to list a few) would give public media a more ‘stylish’ concept of the computer programmer. This would allow for a broadening of the stereotype, and through character development in the show, do away with notions of what a computer scientist’s character “must be”. She has poured resources into a nice script, but has so far gotten nowhere – it seems even media is wary to take a chance on something “too fringe” or “too geeky”.

Of course, by this token, there are shows that do showcase computer scientists. Though the lack of media attention may be due to the fact that they either fall into stereotype (Big Bang Theory, the IT Crowd) or the computer scientist is not the main focus. For example, Chuck Bartowski of the NBC series Chuck is the main protagonist and is actually a Computer/Software Engineer – however the caveat is that the show explores his “spy life”, not his life as a computer programmer. Granted, episodes showcase his “hacking” talents, but his real world job beyond the spy life consists of IT service desk help at a Best Buy-like chain store – he is shown as nerdy and over-qualified but stuck until spy work finds him. The depth of character Chuck explores could certainly give a fresh media model for computer scientists – if only they had explored his programming talents more than a backstory and “feature” of his personality.

One of the few “saving graces” to women at least being represented as computer scientists comes from a surprisingly mainstream source: CBS hit series Criminal Minds. For nine seasons, Penelope Garcia has been the “tech goddess” of her BAU unit. Of course, she cracks up to the stereotype of being eccentric and ‘nerdy’ – but she’s loveable and human. She’s incredibly social, she cares deeply for her teammates, and in every regard except for her dress and collection of brightly colored toys she breaks the stereotypical image of a computer scientist on its head. One could even argue her dress, while “different” is still professional – not the ‘typical’ stereotype of hoodie/t-shirt and jeans. And she’s a woman.
Garcia exemplifies why broadcast stations should NOT be afraid to air computer scientists and crack open those stereotypes with a heart melting character.&nbsp; She makes an amazing role model – but of course the caveat is that on a show with as sensitive of material as Criminal Minds discusses, children can’t be exposed to her and thus their notions remain unchanged. Also, she is part of a show with many characters from many backgrounds, and sometimes her story can be a bit “lost in the shuffle”. However, in my eyes she gives hope that the computer science stereotype – even from the perspective of women in field, can be overcome gracefully.

Klawe makes a strong point that was echoed by the speakers after her – paying attention to media representations is critical to changing interest and stereotypes in our field. We may find media to be poor representations or at times superfluous – but they are what is in the public eye and their perception alters the societal perception as a whole. Hopefully change in TV media will come with efforts like Klawe’s and existing strong character models that already work in hit network shows being able to give an extra push to the initiative.

In the meantime I’ll cheer on Garcia every Wednesday night and relive my DVD series of Chuck – hoping for some new computer programmers to show their face and a depthy character archetype that will make me fall in love with not only their profession – but their personality.

“Well, I figured since I’m gonna have to interact with the mass  populace, I should dress in the traditional costume of a mere mortal.” – Penelope Garcia, Criminal Minds

GHC Reflections: Brenda Chapman Session

This reflection is one of the harder ones for me to write.

One of the highlights of the Grace Hopper Celebration was Friday’s panel with Brenda Chapman. For those who are not familiar, Chapman has worked at Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. She is most famous for concieving the idea and directing Brave (Pixar’s first female director, it should be noted). She was also Head of Story on the Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, and designed the iconic Little Mermaid scene of Ariel arching over the rocks with the waves crashing as she sings “Part of Your World”. Of course, Chapman has a slew of other credits to her name on projects both big and small – but I thought I might share the ones that were the most iconic to me for a general overview.

Chapman’s session was an overview of the projects she’s worked on in her career, and the skills that helped her to get there. Passion and tenacity were chief in this list. Interspurced clips from her works kept the audience engaged with nostalgia and wonder while highlighting some of her proudest moments.

And yet. And here is where the blogging becomes hard to do.

If I may be so bold, Chapman seemed so sad through the entire session. She spoke of doing what she loves, of passion and dedication, and yet there was a weariness in her that, despite trying to show a smile, it appeared she could not shake.

And honestly, in hearing her panel I would not blame her in the slightest if my perceptions were accurate. She was initially denied entry to Cal-Tech, only to finally get in the next year. When she was hired at Disney, it was only to meet a necessary female quota, not because it was believed she had talent. She was fired from directing the dream movie of her own design.

She embodies so much of the undertone that became apparent at Grace Hopper.

Chapman is a successful woman and her talent is not to be trifled with. She had many great roles, great mentors, and great opportunities because of her skills and her hard work. Yet something always seemed to go awry for her. Despite her obvious qualification she continues to, like so many professional women, not be believed in and to have her amazing accomplishments all too often dismissed. At least, this is how it felt in hearing her.

I hope that in saying these things it does not dismiss the validity of her accolades, or seem to state that no one has ups and downs in their career – far from it. But it seemed as though Chapman was sober to the sad truth that settled over the conference: women still aren’t trusted to do the job well, even when they have proven their worth. For a panel entitled “I Do What I Love to Do…and I’m a Girl” – it seemed as though the title was trying to affirm this as truth in a world that still sees otherwise. And I do hope that these reflections are of course, taken as what they are – reflections. Chapman’s panel was still enjoyable, and she is a lovely woman worth looking up to – I guess I could not help but feel like there was something more she wanted to say, but could not.

I think the hardest pain – and again, hitting the point home, probably lay in Brave. Merida is modeled after Chapman’s own daughter. This was, as she put it, her passion project. The story was her own, and it must have been amazing to have Pixar take interest. But then to be removed from the project and watch another finish your passion work – that must have been awful. I am surprised in all honesty that she has the strength and resolve she does to continue working, continue inspiring, continue telling stories and speaking up. If for some reason you find nothing else worthy of Chapman to look up to, look up to that. I know I do. She stared into the face of something that for a creator must have been heart wrenching and came out on the other side still in love with the creative process and her work. That is magnificent.

Along the same point of Brave, I had the opportunity to pose a question to Chapman regarding Merida’s redesign by Disney. For those unaware, Merida was stylized in marketing to look “more princess-like” – taming her hair, giving her curves, putting her in the dress she so hated in the movie, and removing her signature bow. We could speak again to the assumptions of women in our culture – but that topic seems tangential and bludgeoned to death.

Chapman publicly spoke out against the redesign as Merida was, in essence, an embodiment of being truly yourself – which the redesign stripped her of. For a while it seemed as though the public outcry had been heard, and the issue waned. Of course though, Halloween costumes rolled out – and when Disney princesses hit the shelves, the Merida redraw was back – after the issue seemed to have boiled over. I posed the question to Chapman if she thought all the efforts to get Merida’s design back had made a difference.

However, as I had seen the new product releases already I knew the answer was no before she replied. I was more interested in how she planned to move forward – would she continue to fight? Disney is of course, a force to be reckoned with – and at the end of the day, they are a company and need to be concerned with their marketing and advertisement. The fight may be a losing battle – but it is one Chapman intended to keep fighting. She stated she was planning to continue speaking with MightyGirl and other awareness campaigns for next steps. I applauded that despite being knocked down yet again, she was still hoping to continue on and keep trying.

One of the final somber points Chapman made was that she is going to move forward keeping her passion projects a little closer to herself. I think this point is the saddest part – the world needs people coming alive in their passions. Of course, Chapman can work on them herself, but sometimes the best way to bring passions to life is being able to work with others on them. Someone with such wonderful and inspiring ideas as her should be able to share them and help them grow through the assistance of others into whatever beautiful thing they can become. There is no limit to our capabilities – but sometimes we expand them through work with others. And it is sad that past offenses have caused her to lose some trust in that – like so many other genius, creative minds.

Despite all of the sobering undertones felt in this presentation, Chapman truly inspired me to continue to trudge forward despite falling. To continue to prove to the world what I am worth even when the world doesn’t want to listen. To ignite my passions even if I must do so alone.

Not to be corny, but Chapman truly taught me how to be brave.

For more information on Brenda Chapman, visit http://brenda-chapman.com/
For more information on the original controversy over Merida’s redesign, among other news websites you can visit http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/13/brave-director-criticises-sexualised-merida-redesign

“If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?” – Merida, Brave