Can social media inspire more young women to explore computer science? It’s an idea Jocelyn Goldfein, a Director of Engineering at Facebook, discussed in an interview with the Seattle Times a few weeks ago. Bringing more visibility to the women who built popular features like the news feed and photo viewer could interest teenage girls in tech-related careers, she says.
I’ll admit that it’s a start, but I think it’s going to take much more than that.
Software engineering has a big strike against it right from the get-go: it’s still perceived as a guys’ world–one full of gadget-loving geeks whose idea of a good weekend is blasting their way through the latest shoot-em-up video game. Guys who are intelligent to the point of cockiness, but lacking somewhat in social awareness. Most teenage girls aren’t going to find the appeal in a world like that.
When I look back at my high-school self, I see someone who already knew what her career was going to be, and the only keyboarding involved would be writing up the news stories I’d been chasing all day. Journalism seemed like a great fit for me; I earned scholarships and assembled a good clip file. But as I learned more about the hours and workdays, the shine came off a bit. When I was a senior in college, I got interested in the potential of the World Wide Web thing–remember, this was the mid-90s, when it wasn’t the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Less than a year after I finished my Journalism degree, I was back in grad school studying computer science.
I’d like to claim that what changed my course was the foresight that we were on the edge of a paradigm shift, and I wanted to be in on the beginning. But in fact the only reason I even knew about the web was because some friends of mine had gotten me interested in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), one of the early chat networks, and people who were more tech-minded than me were starting to talk about this internet thing.
What draws people into the field that eventually becomes their career? For many of my female peers, it was because computers and programming were something they got into when they were young, and that appeal never went away entirely. But when it came time to choose a degree program, a lot of us looked elsewhere. Is that because that other career path simply seemed a better fit? Or did the idea of darkened rooms, flickering monitors, and the complete lack of a social life put us off?
These days, there are a lot more young women online than there were when I was growing up. But most of them are there to use the software, not to create it. Knowing how to use a computer isn’t anything special anymore; in fact, it’s more or less required in our day-to-day lives. And yet, the number of women studying software and systems is down from previous decades. Less than one in five computer science majors are women, says the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
To draw more women into the fields of computer science and engineering, the most important thing we need to do is change the perception that’s it’s a playground for “brogrammers.” And yes, maybe Goldfein’s idea of giving more visibility to female programmers will help with that. But I think it’s the wrong presentation. “Look at this woman who is a programmer!” is not going to do it; all it does is emphasize the rarity of women in the field. We have to get to “Look at this programmer who happens to be a woman,” before we can achieve that mental shift.