I am completely conflicted at the moment. There’s a campaign running to encourage more girls into careers in technology. Apparently the ratio of women to men in the tech industry is decreasing year on year. So on the face of it it sounds like a good campaign, doesn’t it? Something I should support. But despite being a woman who works in technology, I find it extremely difficult to support this campaign. This probably surprises you, so let me tell you a little more about my past, and how I’ve come to feel this way…
Growing up in the seventies, I thought at the time I was a bit of a tomboy, although looking back now I think I had a pretty balanced childhood. I had a great collection of matchbox cars, I played cowboys and indians, I played with lego, I had riding and dancing lessons and I loved outdoor play. When I was older the home computing revolution started, and I loved it. I played The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on my Dad’s Amstrad PCW, and then my parents bought me an Acorn Electron (which was fun, but didn’t get the cool games that the ZX Spectrum had).
My individuality showed when I picked my A-Level subjects. Maths, further maths and physics were a given – they were my best subjects at O-Level. But for my fourth subject I didn’t choose chemistry like everyone else, I chose French. Because I enjoyed it, and I didn’t like chemistry. I had to push a little bit to get that combination, as my sixth form college thought I should do chemistry. But I got my way :). And I saw first hand that the split of the genders of students of these subjects was anything but equal. My maths class had I think about 10 of us in total, 2 girls. In Physics there were probably 20 in the class, 3 of which were girls. My French class was a similar size – 20, or slightly more, but only 2 boys.
When I was studying for my A-Levels there was a big campaign running to get more women into scientific jobs. Fairly regularly over the two years I would arrive at my physics classroom to find three desks had leaflets on – the three desks belonging to the girls in the class. The leaflets were all trying to encourage us into scientific careers because we were female. There was never any attempt to quantify what unique skills we had that the men didn’t have, so it felt to me like we were only being encouraged to “even up the numbers a bit”. It felt like it didn’t matter whether I was good at science or not, it was just the fact that I was female that meant I was wanted. And I really resented that. I hated being singled out for special attention amongst my peers. I felt uncomfortable with the whole thing. And it put me off a scientific career. To me, the entire campaign failed because it was focussed on the wrong thing.
Men and women are not created equal. I know I’m generalising horribly here, but I truly believe we have different skills and strengths. Equality in employment does not mean a 50/50 split of men and women in every possible career. I am a great believer in picking the right person for the job, irrespective of gender, race, or anything else. Since time began there have been careers that have played more to women’s strengths, and those that have played more to men’s. Don’t get me wrong, I think technology is a great career for a man or a woman, and I personally have never been made to feel out of place in my career. Perhaps I don’t see it, as I’m hardly the target audience, but I’m not aware of large campaigns to get more men into midwifery, for example. So why does there seem to be a perpetual push to get women into particular careers?
As a woman in technology I don’t want to feel that I got any job “to even out the numbers”. I want to think that I was the right person for the job, on a level playing field. So when the latest “let’s get more girls into technology” initiative started, I rolled my eyes. Please. It’s the 21st century. If women want to succeed in a technical career, the last thing they want to hear is that there are campaigns to tailor teaching specifically for them. If a woman is going to succeed in a technical career, she’s got to be considered equal to her male counterparts that she’ll be competing against for jobs all the way through her life. It’s not the best start to that career to start saying “oh we need to change the curriculum to make it more accessible to girls” really, is it? Because if they’re anything like me, the last thing that technically-minded girls want is to be singled out and have a fuss made of them because they’re a girl.
So please, if there’s going to be a campaign to encourage people into technology careers, let’s not limit it to women. Let’s take the opportunity to make a career in technology accessible to ANYBODY who wants one.
OK, rant over. If you’re interested in this debate, there’s a Twitter discussion being held tomorrow, February 7th, between 1pm and 2pm (UK time). It’s hosted by my friend Mediocre Mum, who is working with the team from Lady Geek to research why girls do not tend to consider careers in IT/Tech and what can be done to change this. Watch our for the hashtasg #LittleMissGeek.
Image credit: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net