Women in IT and computing – a female geek’s perspective

http://evasmith.wordpress.com/2010/09/04/i-love-being-a-geek/Some of you may know that I work in the IT (Information Technology) industry in my day job (computing/ programming) and that I’m fairly passionate about women studies. That being said, people would probably box me in the ‘nerd’ or ‘girl geek’ category easily – and that truly doesn’t bother me. I’m happy to wear that badge of honour. I’m a computer programmer, I paint fantasy and sci-fi imagery, I love the whole genre in fact (read, watch and play), I’m involved in medieval recreation, I game (though rather badly) and I even wrote an animation assignment at uni on Anime (back in 1997, way before Anime became the ‘in’ thing).

On stereotypes – girls in IT

I’ve been watching the Big Bang theory which completely sends up stereotypes. It seems that a lot of people have stereotypes about computer programmers and software engineers. You know, the dorky white guy with no social skills, wears glasses, drinks caffeine like it’s going out of fashion, speaks Klingon, games, collects comics …etc etc. Ok, the reality is, you will meet people like this, or ticks at least a few of the boxes. But stereotypical girl geeks? That kind of goes against the stereotype. So we have the two views – the female version of the ‘guy geek’, or the ‘fantasy’ version who is geeky in all the right ways, but resembles Lara Croft.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about ‘girl geeks’,  in particular women in IT, and why we seem to be rare (and often at odds with the stereotypes). It also got me thinking about how I ended up in a male dominated industry which hasn’t really changed in numbers, in fact I think I see less girls coming into IT these days than when I was just beginning my career.

Was I always going to go into a stereotypically ‘male’  industry?

This is a hard one to answer. I was an Army brat so I spent a lot of time with my brother. We shared our love of Transformers, Voltron, Robotech, Star Trek and Star Wars. I was a child of the 80’s and at the time, the motto was ‘women can do anything’. I grew up with pictures of Lieutenant Uhura, female astronauts, She-ra, Lisa from Robotech, Princess Allura, and of course there were Barbies and cooking toy and Lego. Man, I loved Lego. My Grandfather had a workshop and was a boiler maker. When he taught stuff to my brother or showed us various bits of ‘old technology’ I was in heaven. I guess it never crossed my grandfather’s mind that girls would be interested in this stuff. If my brother could do it, so could I! I remember doing stocktake with my father (who was a Quartermaster) in the Armoury. We counted magazines and rifles along with the toiletpaper and ration packs. I was probably doomed from the start!

I did the girly things too. I danced until the end of high school, I loved princesses and beautiful dresses, I enjoyed romance novels when I was a teen. I never felt that by being a ‘girl’ I couldn’t join in in typically ‘male’ things. It ticked me off at high school when I had to choose between art, shop (metal working and woodworking) and physics. I wanted to do all three. I chose art if you couldn’t guess. I did computing because my parents made me, I actually loved the computer, I just was a few steps behind everyone at school since I’d come from a school that used Apple Macs, not DOS operated windows machines.

So what did I want to be when I grew up? It varied between Astronaut, pharmacist, electrical engineer, ballerina, teacher and novelist. Illustrator came during my late teens … as a result of my fantasy and sci-fi reading habits. I had a terrible time sticking to any one thing – everything interested me. I ended up going to art college (to be an art teacher), which got me interested in web design. I finished that, hated teaching, and went back and did an IT degree. I hated programming, majored in Information Systems and ended up loving being a developer in the real world.

Do I ever feel like the odd one out (in my industry and at school)?

Yes, I sat in auditoriums where you could probably count the number of girls on your fingers and toes. Yes, I’ve come up against men whose opinions of women in IT are decidedly negative (a lecturer no less!), but most of the guys are cool with girls being in IT – as long as they prove they’ve got skillz. But they feel that way about both genders – if you can’t follow up the talk with actual knowledge or skills, you won’t get respect, regardless of who you are.

I always feel as though being in the minority, you have to prove yourself to be 10 times better than the others. Partly that is the way I am, partly it’s because you feel as though you’re representing your gender and don’t want to be ‘that stupid female developer who got her job just because she’s a girl’, and partly because technology is exciting. Even a few weeks ago, I sat in a job interview and one of the candidates assumed that I was not a technical person (true, I was asking analyst related questions, but it’s a common assumption that if you’re a female in the IT industry, you probably are a tester or on the business side of things). Even working for a pretty inclusive employer, we’d have maybe a dozen female coders out of probably 250 devs, and a lot of the women kind of move into management!

Why you should encourage girls to go into Information Technology?

It’s exciting! There are so many more jobs than just writing code. Since I started (apart from writing code), I’ve done system analysis, testing, architecture and design, project management, team leader roles, system support, hardware requisitions, application deployments and now security (one of my first loves at uni was a subject on security where we learnt about penetration testing and ethical hacking). I’ve worked less than 10 years in the industry. True, I focus on Microsoft technologies and work in government, but outside you can work in gaming, mobile development, apply RFID to environmental studies, do PR, start your own business…. IT touches everything we do. It’s not going away. Sure, 10 years from now my current skills will probably be ancient, but if you love learning new things, this is the industry for you!

Do you need to be a geek to work in computing?

No! Absolutely not. I’m a geek – being a geek got me interested in technology, which is probably the way many technologists and computer scientists get into IT. But there is probably only one or two other female developer who are slightly geeky – one games, wears slightly punk clothes, and does tribal belly dancing, the other is a complete FPS nut. The other female IT workers include mothers, dog-lovers, women who are heavily involved in the Church, women who do yoga and use oracle cards, women that do craft, women that are trained as personal trainers, lottery winners, women who love cooking and do bake-offs (with the men on the team mind you!), photographers, world travellers, sports nuts, camping enthusiasts, party animals …. all normal people with a broad range of interests. Some go home and don’t do anything computer related at home, others thrive on IT. Some hate programming. Some, like me, enjoy it and get pushed into roles where they don’t get to code :(

So to round it all off?

Get involved with technology especially if you are a girl – it is rapidly evolving, very creative, all encompassing, and the majority of people you work with are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. Geeks are there – there is no getting away from them. We’re talking about computers so lots of smart people, lots of extremely passionate people, lots of people with vision who embrace the future.

Interesting reads around the topic (with many geeky shout-outs!):

‘I Love being a geek’ badge courtesy of http://evasmith.wordpress.com/2010/09/04/i-love-being-a-geek/