“A Woman’s Mind Isn’t Made for Programming”

Women Struggle to Close Gender Gap in the Tech Community

A few weeks ago, I was taking a cab to the airport. Like me, the driver was a programmer, so we started talking about our favourite languages and sharing some of our own projects.

After about 10 minutes, he paused thoughtfully. “So you must be really smart,” he said. “A woman’s mind isn’t made for programming.”

I rarely experience sexism that overt, but women in tech face varying degrees of it all the time. After all, according to the Computing Research Association, women are responsible for less than 12 per cent of computer science degrees in the United States. So it’s no wonder some people assume it’s genetic.

But the women behind the Montreal chapter of Girl Geeks, Alexandra Dao and Georgiana Laudi, disagree.

The group, which finds women experts to come speak on a variety of tech and feminism related topics, meet once a month. And while they’re acutely aware of tech’s gender gap (Dao is the only female employee at her startup), they’re confident this is a nurture-over-nature situation.

“Tech seems to come a little bit easier to guys just because it’s nurtured from a younger age,” Laudi said. “The girl in computer science feels intimidated by her classmates, who have been on a computer since they were twelve.”

This, both agree, is a problem specific to North America.

Many Asian and Middle Eastern countries treat computer science as a women’s field because it’s a job with no manual labour. In fact, Dao pointed out, in countries like Malaysia, women actually dominate the field.

Tina Salameh, who is double majoring in computer science and computation arts at Concordia, feels it’s also the environment of the tech community that may alienate women even further.

“Tech is a meritocracy. It’s like ‘Read the fucking manual or get the fuck out,’” Salameh said. “Women are gentler than that.” Like many fields, Salameh added, women also often fall behind if they decide to have children.

As part of a small minority, women in tech also seem to feel the need to consistently prove themselves, especially those in the more stereotypical female fields. Laudi, a freelance web marketer, said this is something that often bothers her at tech events. She hates people making her feel like “just another marketing girl,” which she said happens a lot.

“Do guys getting MBAs feel bad when they go to tech events and say they’re in business?” Dao asked.

“No,” said Laudi, adding that men don’t have to explain themselves at tech events, since their gender does that for them.

But Salameh thinks that’s just the nature of the field. Tech is competitive, she said, and everyone has to prove themselves.

“Men in tech, they look at me and they talk down to me. But that was at first. Eventually, you get your skills together,” she said.

Laudi and Dao think the gap may finally be closing, just very slowly. Social media, they agree, allows women to connect with the tech community in a non-threatening way.

“It’s easy to get involved [in social media], and become a little more visible,” Dao said. “It’s easier to sort of self-select people that you have things in common with.”

This, Dao added, might help with another major drawback for women interested in tech.

“You need to have mentors,” she said.

In the workplace, Dao’s noticed that men are working towards a more balanced office as well. They need women—who are part of their target market—to help create a gender friendly project. “The more diverse your team is, you’re always going to have a better program in the end,” Dao said. “It benefits everyone.”

These changes, Laudi says, might also start to affect the culture of raising children.

“The next generation of mothers is going to be like us,’ she said. “We’re going to nurture tech and that way of life just as much in little girls as little boys.”

She’s optimistic, but doesn’t expect much real change to occur in the immediate future. “Maybe in ten years a need for [Girl Geeks] won’t exist anymore,” she said. “Maybe in 20.”

And for now? “There is definitely a demand.”

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 25, published March 8, 2011.

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