Ada Lovelace Day Post
Ada Lovelace is known as one of the first computer scientists. She developed a language and initial functions for the “analytical engine” Charles Babbage envisioned in the 1800’s. Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Several ladies have posted about famous female Computer Scientists that inspired them either to turn to Computer Science or as they were studying it. I guess I could list the usual Grace Hopper, Mary Lou Jepsen, Anita Borg……. but the truth is I didn’t really know much about any of these people until after I’d already graduated and was already on the path so to speak. So instead I’ll talk about how I strive to be a role model for other women 🙂
For most of my time in Computer Science, I have had to constantly remind myself that I was doing this not only for myself and for the love of what I do, but to set an example and be a role model or inspiration to other women. The challenges have been deeply personal and also social. Social situations have challenged me at a level that has forced me to constantly evaluate myself and my motivation. The biggest challenge has been myself. I suffered from low self confidence from the first day I took my first Java programming class, and while I enjoyed the subject material and worked hard, I distanced myself from my classmates because I assumed they were all much smarter and more competent than I was. Computer Science subject matter was the first subject matter that I didn’t just instantly get and I have always enjoyed the challenge. I’m more of a right-brained, creative person and I had a lot of pressure around me to NOT go into this field.
So one has to ask the question, was I pressured to NOT go into Computer Science because I am female and it didn’t seem to fit, whereas art and literature seemed more suitable pursuits? I had always enjoyed using computers and frequently spent a lot of time with them on my own. I took well to computer programming as a kid when my dad let me play on our Apple ][ and our Macintosh. It just so happens I’m an extraordinarily stubborn person, so I pretty much disregarded these recommendations and did what I wanted to do. How many girls are as stubborn though when making these choices? How many would excel at Computer Science, but are not encouraged, or even intimidated, like I was?
For the first 10 years of my career I struggled with my own lack of self-confidence. I constantly found myself in situations where I was taken advantaged of, under-appreciated, and under-paid. I let external circumstances guide me more than I should have. Eventually, I got to a point where I was so tired of getting screwed over while people I knew I was at least equally as smart as were excelling, that I just decided to pick something and focus on it, and not worry about anything else.
I returned to a contract position determined to get the most out of the opportunity, and everyone I worked with noticed the difference. I set some small yet attainable goals, and acheived them. I set bigger goals, and acheived them. Gradually I learned to channel my stubborn rebelliousness into my work. When someone told me something wasn’t possible, I strived to prove them wrong. In the past year my stubborn resourcefulness has allowed me to see when people are trying to help, so instead of assuming I can’t do it and not taking the chance, I’ve been fearlessly flying forward in the face of uncertainty.
There is a lot of discussion on how to encourage women in computing or women in Linux. Most of what I see comes down to “women don’t want to seem nerdy because they are afraid boys won’t like them and their friends won’t approve”. Which is, of course, totally wrong. From a young age, boys are encouraged to engage in certain activities, and girls, other activities. I think it’s reasonable to strive to expose children of both genders to whatever activity the other is exposed to. One of the most fun things I think kids of both genders can find equally enjoyable is DIY electronics kits where you make something useful. Electronics are so central to our lives today, by encouraging children to want to know how things work and to build things themselves, I believe that’s the first step in finding your little girl’s inner engineer.
As an adult considering computer science, it wasn’t that I was afraid of being seen as a “nerd”. It was the other people I had to associate with in my coursework. Males in my classes were prone to condescension and seeing my presence as a potential dating opportunity. I didn’t feel that I was being treated as a colleague, more like a “mate”. On the other hand, when I was forceful about being treated as an equal, I was more rigorously challenged with regards to my knowledge of programming arcana, and when I failed to answer correctly, it was “proof” that I didn’t deserve equal treatment. Couple that with low self-esteem many young women have and it’s understandable why many women choose to avoid it all together.
I had a similar experience when I attended LinuxFest a couple years ago, see my post about that. I attended with my boyfriend, who is not really into Linux, and the first reaction from some people I interacted with was to talk to him instead of me. It was also frustrating when talking to various folks, again it was, “are you here with anyone”, not “what do you find interesting at this event?”.
The way to encourage women is for women who are active in those communities to encourage women. As a woman, reach out to other women! Be an accessible role model. Encourage young female relatives by making time to work on electronics projects, installing Linux on an old computer, or helping them build their own computer. Encourage other women by forming technology-oriented social groups that are female focused, reach out to other women you see at LUG’s and local “LinuxFest” type events. In the workplace, you can probably form a social interest group or set up an informal happy hour.
As a man, in the workplace, don’t assume the woman is or wants to be a manager or wants to get her MBA. Don’t assume she’ll do the documentation or the UI, or if she wants to do it, don’t assume it’s because she is less qualified to do anything else. Don’t assume she shares the same perspectives as your wife/girlfriend, and definitely don’t ask for advice on what they would think or do. If you do want to “hit” on a woman at a LUG or a LinuxFest, recognize that’s not what she’s there for and respect that.
Work on self-awareness and understand how you might sound condescending — that’s pretty much a universally annoying characteristic, especially when the person talking to you might not want a hand holding tutorial 😉
Another important thing for women to keep in mind, is that what happened in the past is in the past. Times, people, situations, circumstances, and society change. The more you hold onto bad memories and bad experiences, the more that holds you (and other women) back from evolving into a more socially acceptable society. Instead of thinking in terms of “this guy is being rude to me, so now my whole experience at this LUG is ruined”, think “is this really a prominent attitude here, how should I start a dialog about this, and what can I do to change it?”. Remember that you are a role model and an example. The experience people have with you will ultimately impact other women — do you want to hinder the cause or help it move forward?!