Rarely do I feel compelled to blog immediately from something I read online, but I just read a fascinating article by Jolie O’Dell entitled: Why We Don’t Need More Women In Tech… Yet. In addition to that article, @simonjadis linked me another interesting article entitled Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Telling People How They Should Feel About It. Really thought-provoking pieces about the challenges the industry faces in diversifying. The most interesting part of these articles for me lies in the ideas about childhood and how our dearth of women in tech might stem in part from how girls and boys are treated early on, even starting out with the types of toys available to them.
You will immediately notice the drastic segregation — the gendered version of the Jim Crow-era South. There are entire aisles of pink, and other aisles devoted to dark blues and greens. Imagine that you are only “allowed” in the pink and purple areas of the store, and examine the toys you find there.
The vast majority of playthings for little girls encourage them to think about nurturing others and caring for themselves — including, to a large extent, their appearances. These aren’t inherently negative lessons to learn, except for the fact that these lessons exclude others that deal with problem-solving, strategy, physics… you know, the kinds of things you learn from playing with Lego, K’nex, Stratego and other male gender-coded games and toys.
This struck a BIG chord with me. I’m pretty militant when it comes to how we encourage little girls (AND WOMEN) to be princesses and wear ruffles and buy name designer bags (Reality TV stars anyone?). I loathe it with all my being, because that is soooo the opposite of me and my upbringing and how I think girls should be treated in order to reach their full potential. It made me think back to myself as a kid. I had very techno-savvy parents and grandparents, which I think contributed HUGELY to who I am today. Achievement in the sciences was EXPECTED. Of course as a 5 year old I wanted the tricked out plastic kitchen from Toy’s R Us, I’m not gonna lie, but I also competed with my brother in building lego sculptures, played text adventures when I was 6 on the computer, and learned as much math as I could just to impress my physicist Grandpa every time we’d visit. When I was 14 I even subscribed to 2600, the hacker magazine, because, for some reason, I got the idea that there would be nothing cooler in the world than to be a REAL hacker myself (didn’t have the follow-through to get good at it though, haha).
I think a LOT of this is because I was home-schooled and didn’t hang out with other girls, because honestly, I think I would have shifted my interests greatly if I had attended regular school. I never had the peer pressure to concentrate on being gorgeous, or have the latest jeans, or attract the cutest boy in class. I also never felt like an outcast for liking the stuff that was “nerdy” or “weird”, it was just…what I did. Yes, I lived in a bit of a bubble, and consequently created my own parameters of what was cool and where areas to achieve in, but I also was raised blind to calling my interests out as “special” just because of my gender. It’s almost as if calling ATTENTION to a girl who is drawn to science can be as destructive as ignoring her, you know? Ideally we’re striving for a blind system of people attracted to their inner muses, but that can’t seem to happen as easily when you look at our education system and the way our culture grooms girls to conform to this IDEA of a GIRL that, to me, is terribly limiting.
I don’t have any answers here, and I’m not saying that little girls are all indoctrinated from birth to love Barbies and that ruins their lives (I mean, I loved them too IN ADDITION to my science fiction books. I also alphabetized my stuffed animal collection. Er…moving on.) Boys and girls are genetically different, clearly, but we have stereotyped them into a shortcut for what the SHOULD be before giving them a change to find out who they are themselves. I guess the REAL work needs to be working with children early on, having the right mentors in their life so they are raised less with perceptions of HOW they should be as a girl, and instead WHAT they love as a human being.