Why I’m Rethinking The Gender Issues In Technology – Treehouses

Minecraft head 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.

Kids Fantasy Land 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


images via Nathan Rupert & Doug 
  • Ashlyn Brewer

    I’ve erased this response a couple of times trying to get it right, so I’m just going to dive in without bothering to sound eloquent.

    Respectfully, Matt, screw “separate but equal” treehouses. Women are coming into all of those treehouses (MMORPGs, tech conferences, boards of directors, etc.) whether men like it or not. Those treehouses – beautiful open gaming universes, leadership positions at amazing companies and space at the edge of the technological frontier – are all in the highest and coolest trees. There is no equal in the separate here.

    There is no personal or business case to keep women out, either. The amount of people who want to devote insane stretches of hours to a video game, or who are qualified to lead a board of directors, or who have unique insight to bring to a tech conference, is already a small pool. Why limit it further?

    Also – if this was 2009 and your son and his friends were playing COV/COH, they’d all be dying to roll in my group. In games, skill usually ends up the only deciding factor in who you want to game with. Looking forward to living in a world where that’s true across all these treehouses.

    • http://www.sideraworks.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      I think we’re talking past one another, so I’ll dive right in as well. I think you’re missing the point. That could be because I communicated it badly, or because you’re reading something into it that isn’t there. Either is entirely possible.

      • Brendan Howard

        I don’t think Ashlyn missed the point at all. I think she got the point.

        • http://www.sideraworks.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

          Put more simply: “If teen boys decide that kitchens are the cool place for them to hang out and talk about girls, they are more likely to learn about or be interested in cooking than girls who hang out at the tables in the front of the restaurant. That leads to fewer girls being exposed to the awesomeness of cooking, and thus fewer going into those careers. And that’s troublesome if we need to improve cooking, which is what tends to happen when you add more diversity and if cooking is where the most opportunities exist”

          Now, to address Ashlyn specifically:
          “Respectfully, Matt, screw “separate but equal” treehouses”. I was speaking directly to the fact that young teens seek out spaces with their own gender. Not that they don’t have communal spaces, not that they are trying to be exclusionary, and most certainly not referencing the adult workplace. (heck, half the reason they get together is to talk about the opposite sex)

          “There is no personal or business case to keep women out, either.” See above.

          “In games, skill usually ends up the only deciding factor in who you want to game with.” This has not been experience with this particular age group.

          The entire point was that I’m strongly interested in bringing in more young girls to the STEM fields, and that some of the formative behaviors I see taking place at a specific age group are troubling to me with the implication that it could actually harm those efforts.

          Maybe I’m missing the point of Ashlyn’s comments, but they seem geared to adult situations that I’m not addressing at all?

          • Ashlyn Brewer

            I *absolutely* read this blog post as you using your son’s experiences – and the treehouse metaphor – to describe the benefits and origins of male-dominated industry conferences, departments, boards, etc. Based on your response here, that was not the point you were trying to make. Sorry for my misinterpretation.