I was going to call this article, “Girls Do Tech Differently,” but I decided against it.
Why? When you use a word like differently, the language itself assumes a standard measure against which something else is gauged. Of course that standard is and always has been a male one, and that isn’t fair to girls. So I will not say that they approach tech “differently.” In fact, in my experience girls love technology, especially when they realize that they are, in fact, really good at it.
That said, however, girls have been turning away from Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers for decades, and although advocacy groups have taken steps to encourage more girls toward STEM-related paths, we still aren’t seeing girls flocking to STEM careers. And many young women who do start out in STEM-related academic paths end up switching their majors before they graduate.
There are myriad reasons for the problems facing women in STEM, but one overarching truth about our efforts to recruit and retain girls in tech is that we are expecting them to think and behave like boys, to be attracted to technology for the same reasons and in the same ways as boys are.
But in my experience, that’s not going to happen. Girls are attracted to technology for fundamentally different reasons than boys. If we’re to have any success attracting them into STEM careers, we’re going to have to figure out what selling points will work on girls, and (despite the marked improvement of this techie Barbie over the last) I personally don’t think this is one of them:
Perhaps I have a fairly unusual perspective because I’m a woman with a background in software analysis and design who went back to school to learn digital media arts. I was good at my technical job, but not happy. I worked with a lot of men building some pretty sophisticated software systems that, unlike Barbie, I actually understood. And yet I wanted – craved, really – something more creative. My job paid well and was highly technical and very specialized in the software world, but in the end it made me miserable and sick.
I’m happier now as a “creative.” Healthier, too. But I’m also doing what a lot of girls and women prefer to do: using my education to improve the lives of those around me. And for me, that’s a good enough reason to have bothered to learn all of this stuff. But would I have gone into technology without a compelling personal reason? I can’t imagine any reality in which that might have happened.
And that’s really the point of this post.
The thing is, with boys it’s easy to sell them on tech. They seem to be attracted to the bells and whistles a given technology presents on its face, or to the building and engineering processes themselves, or an abstract idea of advancing science or even earning a higher salary. These enticements work for boys, but that’s not what drives most girls and women in their career choices.
I remember being confused as to why adults tried to sell me on those things as a kid because none of that stuff ever appealed to me as important life goals. I mean sure, it would theoretically have been awesome to advance humanity’s scientific knowledge or to earn a great salary, but I would never have chosen what I wanted to do in life based on those objectives, which to me seemed egocentric and self-gratifying (which, to me at least, also meant feeling empty inside). In retrospect I think these typical selling points are somewhat male-centric aims because they are relevant mostly to the masculine cultural identity of winning bread and contributing to the advancement of society. But they didn’t intersect well with my interests and desires as a young woman, which had more to do with taking care of the people around me and making a social difference in the community at large.
And I know I’m not alone.
I’ve trained plenty of women and girls in a variety of technologies, and they are typically at least as astute as their male counterparts, on average. But the thing is, women and girls (gals) want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing before they’re ready to engage with a technology.
My approach to technology has always been the same way. I was that kid in math class who had to know why the formula worked. If it didn’t make sense to me I couldn’t even remember it, let alone correctly apply it. But whenever I needed to understand how something worked in order to accomplish my goals, I’ve never hesitated to knuckle down and learn the technical aspects. And that’s down to having a sense of purpose in the work.
What we’re seeing now is that girls and women are very similar in that they’ll be more than willing to learn a technology when the work itself seems interesting. I’ve also seen it in my own classes. Girls as young as six have no problem approaching the technology when they’re already excited about what it can do for them. Where the purpose is clear and the interest is there, girls are just as likely to apply themselves to learning the technology as boys. And they’re equally successful.
Once they do learn the technical aspect of the job, most girls seem to be just as surprised as I was at how easy it is. Maybe that’s because we’re all made to believe that STEM careers and technology as a whole aren’t meant for us. While that reality is frustrating, I’m still optimistic for girls/women/gals in tech, because a little bit of confidence and camaraderie helps a lot, which means the snowball effect will happen – it’s just a matter of when.