I have incredibly mixed feelings on this topic of gender issues in technology, always have. I’ve also always been a proponent of getting more girls engaged into the STEM fields early on. Carol Bartz (my old boss) was a big influence on opening my eyes to this all the way back in the 90’s at Autodesk when she was heavily engaged in supporting initiatives to do just that.
That said, I’m also frequently annoyed at many women decrying the sad percentages of women heading up tech companies, or sitting on the board of directors, or speaking at tech conferences…while ignoring some very real rational reasons that those disparities exist. That doesn’t excuse the disparity by the way, some of it is without question due to sexism whether consciously executed or not. I simply believe that voices are more apt to be listened to when presenting a complete picture vs. only a selective slice of reality. And the fact that the loudest voices seem to come from those looking to get speaking gigs, or be hired into a leadership position, well…right or wrong it makes me tune them out as opportunists.
We hear about exclusionary ‘brogrammer’ culture that makes it difficult to break into, we hear about VC’s in The Valley who simply feel more comfortable investing in others who look like them, we hear about how the hours and commitments involved in a startup intimidate both the woman and the hiring party because of their increased obligations in our societal structure. The list is long and varied…and nothing new. So what exactly has me rethinking this issue.
I have a 14 year old son. He is heavily into science and computers. He plays all the typical games, particularly multi-player online games. Do you know how many girls he plays with in these games? Zero. Do you know how many girls he even knows of who play these games? Zero. If you were to ask him or his friends if they’d have an issue playing these games with girls they’d likely say yes. That includes the cool ‘geek girl’ who may be into the same things they are.
The question is ‘why’? Based on the conversations I overhear during gameplay, I have no doubt that these young boys would feel stymied in their ability to act and speak freely. At this age they begin to feel self-conscious around girls, and let’s face it, these young boys like to be crude and silly with one another.
The games have become their equivalent of the last generations old treehouses, it’s not so much about the game as it is a safe place to meet up and do stupid boy stuff. They may not be posting a sign that says “No girls allowed” but they might as well be.
Girls have their equivalent treehouses, but what worries me is that it used to be that these clubs, cliques, groupings, or whatever you prefer to call them really were equivalent among the sexes. Separate but equal. They were physical spaces that facilitated that need when coming of age to feel that you weren’t alone in your feelings. A place of open sharing.
But texting, instant messaging, and cellphones (the predominant means of communications amongst young girls) are considered simple forms of communication, whereas gaming and the culture around it leads to a focus on learning about your computer hardware so that you can make it faster, or programming and networking so that you can learn cheats or run your own Minecraft server.
My son and his friends silently compete among themselves for gaining that upper hand, which means learning more and more about how and why technology works the way it does. The girls they know *use* technology in their communications, but they don’t crawl beneath the surface of it. Their treehouse doesn’t require it.
The tech itself, and the way it is used as a part of these rituals of growing up, seems to be more divisive than ever when it comes to the sexes, while at the same time it’s not even noticed. And it’s happening at exactly the worst ages. These are the ages where we need to have attracted young girls to these fields if we are to make a real dent in the degrees that women seek and their subsequent mark in those fields.
The different sexes need their treehouses, forcing them into each others certainly isn’t helpful. I’m just extremely concerned that we appear to be exacerbating the problem by the very nature of the treehouse itself, at the worst time possible in these kids growth.
I wish I had a simple answer or recommendation to give right here. I don’t. But I plan on spending some time thinking about it. Perhaps you can make some helpful suggestions in the comments below.
Matt Ridings - @techguerilla