I think that there’s this image of a hacker… But you don’t really think of that for girls. It’s more of a stereotype of what’s ingrained in our society.
That was Alisha.
I’m sixtee — seventeen (laugh).
And along with 40,000 other girls around the country, Alisha is enrolled in a summer program called Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology.
Alisha is enrolled in their 7-week summer immersion program, which introduces high school girls to coding, as well as to different job opportunities in tech. She also takes a computer science class at her high school:
We have a Java class. But there were only like 3 girls and 15 boys. So it was really intimidating, and it could also be kind of stressful because sometimes you’d be afraid to ask for help because you’d worry that they’d be judging and they’d say oh she’s just asking because she’s stupid and she’s a girl and she shouldn’t be here.
Now for the record, no one in the class actually said anything to Alisha up front.
A lot of times it was more subtle. Projects were clique-y, and people didn’t share information.
But she is definitely not the only case of being one of very few female developers in an entire room of boys. Here’s Aaron on how she found the program:
I learned about it from my robotics team. We have about 50 team members and only three of them are girls.
50?! Like 5–0?
And Aaron, well, she has been confronted about being one of the few girls on her team.
What’s most unsettling is that Alisha and Aaron’s experiences are not unique—not for high schoolers and not for fully grown professionals. Women make up just eighteen percent of the computer science majors in the U.S. — a huge drop compared to the peak of 37% back in 1984. At the same time, women’s participation in the other sciences has gone up in the last few decades. You can see the rise of women graduating with degrees in biology, earth and ocean sciences, psychology, and the physical sciences.
So, what happened to women’s participation in computer science over the last thirty years? On this podcast, we look into the many stories data can tell us. But in the case of women in computing, there are a whole lot of experiences that the data doesn’t capture. Like the number of business deals that take place over drinks at a bar where women may not feel welcome. Or the average length of time it takes for women to get a promotion as compared to their male colleagues. Or the number of times where the sole woman in the room feels too uncomfortable to speak up or ask a question because she’s visibly different from everyone else.
Throughout the late sixties and seventies, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. Oddly enough, the drop off for women in computing occurred around the same time that personal computers started hitting the marketplace. The IBM PC came out in 1982; Apple released its Macintosh in 1984; and some argue that marketing strategies were geared primarily towards men around that time.
Now I’m really glad for Jerry the computer guy…
…Elliot and Jeff’s after school computer activities…
…and the father son duo who decided to get another computer, but where are all the women in these ads? Or the mother/daughter duos? I know advertising isn’t the sole reason for the drop of female computer scientists, but it seems to have played at least a mild role.
Circumstances within academic and professional environments certainly haven’t helped retain women either.
Actually one of the biggest drop offs for girls occurs right around middle school. 66% of girls between ages 6 to 12 report being interested or enrolled in computing programs, but those numbers more than half for girls once they hit 13. By freshman year in college, just 4% of women report being interested or enrolled in CS.
And to be honest, the issues that Alisha and Aaron dealt with in their high school programs aren’t so far off from some of the challenges faced by women ten, twenty, or more than thirty years their senior.
My name is Lauren McCarthy and I’m an artist and software developer and I am a developer of a library called p5.js which is a toolkit for artists and designers and anyone really to create interactive sketches on the web. I’m also an assistant professor at UCLA DMA program.
Lauren is also the creator of a library called p5.js, which is a toolkit that makes coding more accessible to artists, designers, educators, and beginning programmers. She’s a known leader in her field. Her P5 work is devoted to expanding the boundaries of inclusion. And still I was surprised to hear how similar some of her experiences were with other girls and women I spoke with.
I can see myself doubt my own qualifications, and that’s where I feel like it manifests the most, in this subtle way. It’s not like people say you’re a woman, you don’t know what you’re doing, get out of here. Um, but I do see these sort of subtle moments, or when I’m working on p5 or software development open source situation, there are these very subtle moments where someone might question something and you wonder if it has to do with your gender or not.
I know we all doubt our abilities at times, but the fact that gender even comes up as a possible explanation is, well, a really troubling testament to where we stand in the 21st century. Like seventeen-year-old Alisha, Lauren — who’s been working in the field for close to a decade — also mentioned these nearly imperceptible comments and actions that made her question her qualifications.
For example I was having dinner one night with some colleagues and one person mentioned to me that “I was up for this job, but they couldn’t hire me because they had this quota of women they had to hire, and so they hired a woman” And initially I said — because I had also gotten a new job recently — like oh, that’s what happened to me but luckily I’m a woman, and then I caught myself and I was like no, wait, that’s not what I think at all. And what an assumption on this other person’s part that you didn’t get the job just because you’re — you know — because they were trying to exercise some quote of women hiring, and there isn’t a possibility that she’s just more qualified as a person.
This whole notion of filling a quota — well, it’s irritating. Especially if you’re among the group of people who is under represented: whether that’s women, people of color, transgender, differently abled — Lauren, and many of the other women I spoke with, didn’t want to be at the table because they filled a quota. They wanted to be at the table because they earned their seat.
If you’re trying to include more women, or include more of anyone, you got to talk to them and listen and try to best understand how to invite them. I know some women that will not accept an invitation of extra travel support or whatever, because they feel like oh I’m just being brought in as the token woman. And I want to be accepted for my qualifications, not because I’m a woman. I have no doubt that they’re invited for their qualifications, but the fact that they’re a woman is highlighted for their travel support. In my case I’m like if you want to pay for my ticket I’ll take it! That’s cool (laugh).
But I think what you really have to do if you’re having an event or if you’re working on a project, and want to invite someone in that’s not necessarily a part of the core group or the majority, you just have to talk to them. Be open and honest and listen, and see what is the way that would make them feel comfortable to participate, or what made them not already want to sign up and be a part of it. I think any time you feel like someone’s really trying to meet you and engage with you and not just put you on a line up so they look good, then you’re immediately willing to work with them.
It’s not just about women being more proactive, or assertive, or stepping up to the plate when an opportunity arises. There’s also a responsibility of the majority to meet those who are less-represented half way. Or more than half way really.
If I’m having a developers conference and I want to have more women there, it’s not enough or have 2 women and 30 men, and so that’s good, we’ve go the women. No we’ve got to be like 50% women or more than that, we are pushing against what has been the norm.
I love this point about getting everyone out of their comfort zones. You know — it’s not just about one group pushing their boundaries to welcome another. Everyone needs to come together, swim a bit in the uncomfortable space, and learn that their neighbors are not so very different from themselves.
The thing is, even when you do make it through the front door though, and you’re given free reign to try what you want to try, and to say what you want to say: there are plenty of cases where gender manages to become relevant when it shouldn’t. Lauren developed a project called Follower, where users could hire a person — or Lauren in this case — to follow them for a day. The service sort played in the grey space between how we perceive followers on social media versus how we understand government surveillance.
There were some women that I followed, but primarily the applicants were mainly men. And this made sense to me because as a woman I’m already self conscious of — am I in a safe situation, is anyone following me. So I can see how people wouldn’t want to play up that dynamic. But one of the funniest things is that this one reporter, this guy I spoke with for a while about the project, and when his headline came out, it was something like “the worlds creepiest social network is just some woman following you”
And I mean first of all it’s kind of funny because it’s click bait obviously. He plays up the drama, but it felt to me like there was so much embedded in there that was glossed over. Like, “yeah it’s just some woman which is kind of silly and laughable. But what are you implying here?” Well, first that the opposite would be terrifying. If it’s a man, which it is a lot of the time where a man if is following a woman, then it’s strange to me that it could be turned around and turned into a joke.
In this case, so much is implied by our choice of language. The word “just” is so loaded — because it’s used here to distinguish — and also to deflate the presence of a certain group.
There are so many words that historically have associations with feminine or masculine traits. For instance if I say the word “sensitive” I imagine most would connect it with one gender, versus if I say the word “aggressive” most might affiliate it with another. But really shame on all you dividers out there, because “sensitive” and “aggressive” are gender-neutral descriptors, as is the word “just.”
I spoke with a lot of people for this episode, and I was struck by how commonly specific words were used to contrast one gender from the other; like authoritative versus accommodating, or loud versus timid. But the expectations we bring to each adjective are less connected to gender, and more closely tied to being in the position of the majority or the minority. Aren’t most people more likely to be soft-spoken, or timid when they’re the odd person out?
A lot of time the environment around open source is — well, it’s a lot of men. You have to elbow your way in and shout to be heard, and for your position to be accepted, Especially when you’re first starting out because people don’t know who you are. And I just realized, that wasn’t my inclination at all. And I think it’s not what feels comfortable for a lot of women or a lot of people who feel underrepresented in the open source community.
Elbowing your way in. It’s something I heard more than once. And I know it’s something that comes up often with the open source community, but I was surprised at how often I heard it from the women I spoke with.
Leslie is a programmer at our studio, and prior to working at Fathom, she worked for a defense research lab. Now, to be clear, Leslie sees herself as being pretty fortunate throughout her academic and professional pursuits:
I never felt really disenfranchised as a woman in a male dominated field. It was always just a reality and I always just worked within those…I wouldn’t even call them constraints. You know in that environment.
I appreciate her perspective. Because for all the things that are difficult, she still feels she has it pretty good. That said, there are things that bother her about the whole gender discussion.
I’m struggling with the duality here. There is a two-sided nature that comes with the act of identifying personal characteristics like gender, race, sexual orientation, ableness, and so forth. As in yes, I’m proud of who I am, and I’m proud to be a woman, but it’s not the only thing that defines me, and I certainly don’t want it to serve as the sole lens from which my work and thoughts are received.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean my being a woman shouldn’t be addressed at all.
Back at the lab, Leslie was a part of a team that did rapid prototyping and engineering, and then took their products out into the world for field-testing. In one of her groups, she was the only woman in a team of 10–15 men.
The field tests were probably the place where I felt most disadvantaged or out of place as a woman. And it was for these really crazy reasons like there was no place to go to the bathroom. There was no port-a-potty there. And the social hour after the tests were over, everyone would go out to a bar and drink a lot, and that wasn’t really my thing. You can imagine how it would be, like maybe a woman wouldn’t want to be in that situation.
Clearly there were elements of the working environment that made it less welcoming to women. As in nobody on the organizing team stopped to think what kind of people could actually participate in the environment they’d set up. And further, the group dynamic, again, was more accommodating to those who felt comfortable speaking up, or elbowing their way in.
In the field testing situations…I was just pushed to the side constantly. Because you know I didn’t want to speak up, I didn’t want to inject myself into something and I didn’t want to put anyone else — inconvenience anyone else to try and get in there and learn how to do it. But that’s how you do it. You have to elbow your way in and come in with a screwdriver and say everyone get out of my way! I want to do this. And I never got the opportunity to learn how to do these really basic things that I was interested in.
I don’t know maybe the people I was with would have given me more of a chance to try some stuff and make mistakes, but I think it was immediately assumed that I couldn’t do some of the things because, you know, I didn’t look like someone that knew how to operate a power drill or whatever (chuckle).
For the record, I’ve seen Leslie handle a power drill. Actually, she built an entire climbing wall along the interior of her apartment. Still, when all is said and done, she’s not the kind of person to blame her gender when things get tough:
So a couple years ago I went to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing which is this really big annual conference that’s held, and there are female computer scientists from all over that world that come together…So it was really inspiring to see all those women there in one place, and to see how different the landscape was when you had all women that were really interested in computer science. But they had one panel where…someone was interviewing the CEO of Microsoft, and they asked him a question about … what you have to do to ask for a raise or to be promoted. And he said that, it’s really important — and I’m paraphrasing — but he said that you have to keep your head down and work hard and eventually your honest hard work will pay off. And there was such a huge backlash that he said that. Because everyone was like “Oooh CEO of Microsoft tells women to keep their heads down and keep working.” And that wasn’t what he was trying to say at all — he was just giving general advice.
But that was the problem that led this whole thing to blow up in the first place — that Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft was giving generally good advice — that working hard will generate positive outcomes — but he made his point to a non-general audience. And the person who was interviewing him was asking for advice specifically for women:
That was Maria Klawe, the woman interviewing Satya at that 2014 Grace Hopper Conference. Maria is the first female president of Harvey Mudd College, and has been so for the last ten years. She was also the first female Dean of Engineering at Princeton, the first female Dean of Science at the University of British Columbia, their first female head of Computer Science, and the list of firsts goes on. She was also on the Microsoft Board of Directors for six years.
Now, what most people, including Maria, did not know at the time of the interview, is that Microsoft has an entire system devoted to reducing the gender gap in pay.
The reason they have no gender gap in pay is because they monitor it very carefully. They’re a data driven company so they make sure every time a raise is being recommended, they go through and if there are any discrepancies at any given level, they fix it before the raises are actually given. So at that time, women were earning 99.75% compared to the men at any level for men.
And with that in mind, Satya’s response to Maria’s question felt slightly less out of line. Microsoft is pretty intentional about addressing the gender gap in wages, and given that environment, maybe women really could just trust the system.
But without that context, most women at the conference completely disagreed. Leslie continues:
The audience was largely taken aback by what he said, and the person asking the question gave this rebuttal.
And again, that person was Maria:
So I said, “with great respect Satya, this is one area where I will respectfully disagree. I know how often it is that that I’ve talked to a woman who has realized she’s not being paid competitively. And the advice of how to handle this is to do your homework, find out what a competitive salary would be. And then do some role-play with close friends of how you would ask for it. And then go ahead and do it.” And that’s when people applauded.
For the record, a lot of good was actually generated from this moment. You might even argue that Satya’s slip up created a learning moment for leaders all over the tech industry.
So first of all he sent out an apology within a few hours to every employee at Microsoft for having gotten the answer wrong. And then he came back to Microsoft and he essentially said, look, if I could screw up an answer that badly, probably a lot of other people on the senior leadership team could as well. So we’re going to have a lot of diversity training. And, he’s become, I mean he was always the champion for diversity, which is one of the reasons I lobbied so hard to get him at Hopper because he’s so wonderful. But he became more of champion for diversity after that. I think what he understood was that, even though he meant the advice to be independent of gender, that it could be easily interpreted as being a gender related piece of advice. And that as a CEO of a major company, he needs to make sure that his language doesn’t have those types of applications.
And this moment, this is where we see things starting to come together. Because this one slip up, this one moment where the CEO of Microsoft could have answered a question far more sensitively than he did, it caused some personal reflection, and that reflection sparked a wider conversation, and that conversation caused action.
So, I felt badly about putting Satya in that position where he made that mistake, but I think on the other hand he came through as a thoughtful reflective leader who learned, and who really is a champion for diversity.
Maria and I spoke a bit about how people often forget to mention the progress that’s been made. Like the fact that at Harvey Mudd, they’re graduating more female computer scientists than male, or that large companies like Accenture decided to adjust the language on their careers page — and managed to increase their female hiring from 30% to 42% in just four months.
And these changes to make tech environments more welcoming, they don’t need to be expensive. And they don’t need to be difficult. But they do need to be deliberate.
Here’s Lauren again:
I didn’t set out to make a code library, it wasn’t on my bucket list, but they—I came out of it feeling like I could. And I didn’t need someone else to teach me or guide me every step of the way. Chandler McWilliams said the best thing you can do is be quiet and listen. Listen to the person that needs support, and then from there figure out how to support them instead of trying to just trying to start shouting about something. And that type of support is easy to overlook because it’s not pouring tons of money into something or making a big show of something, but it was absolutely crucial and totally changed my perspective… and opened up a lot of possibilities.
Lauren became a leader in her field because she was entrusted with the freedom to do what she does really well.
I want to end with a note on how this episode started. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant to dive into this topic, because to me it felt trite. And I call myself a feminist. The thing is, I know there aren’t enough women pursuing math and computer science, and I know that of those who do, they don’t stay in the field long, and most aren’t earning equal wages to men in their same positions.
But what I realized after talking to just one person, is that the only thing that’s trite about this whole situation, is how long it’s taking for the numbers to change. Because the stories behind these numbers, well, they’re all different. We can keep saying women in tech want this or women in tech demand that — but, a lot of women want a lot of different things. And the more we categorize people into group A or group B, whether that’s gender, race, sexual orientation, or the differently abled, the more we neglect the needs and perspectives of individuals. And if we could all just hold up a microphone and listen a little more often, maybe learn a thing or two, well, maybe there will be less of a need to talk about inequalities moving forward.
Thanks to Lauren McCarthy for chatting with me all the way from Brisbane, to Maria Klawe, Leslie Watkins, Olivia Glennon, Akamai’s Girls Who Code group in Boston, and the many others who volunteered to share their perspective for this episode.
I’m Alex Geller, and in the words of my new seventeen-year-old friends, remember to CODE LIKE A GIRL.
Thanks for reading.
This is the transcript from the third episode of Especially Big Data. You can listen to it here.