mlearnCon was a great experience, full of possibilities and wonder about the future of performance support, wearable devices and the freedom of mobility across platforms and devices. As great as the event was, the conference experience for a woman working in the technology space can be a bit solitary.
I met someone at mLearnCon, and I suppose I looked like his type. When I say “his type”, I mean a woman to whom he could ask this question: “Why don’t women code?”
I hesitated a moment because I knew what the answer was and I knew it usually brought with it a quizzical look from those who asked me. As a women in IT for most of my career, I knew where the landmines were, and mostly stepped around them. I knew that if I talked about it honestly, he would not have context to understand my answer. It would be almost like asking a fish perpetually gliding in the water “What is it like to be wet?”. There’s no context to “wet” to a fish constantly submerged in water.
In IT fields, it’s not just the loneliness of being the one woman on a development team, or being the guarded project manager in a sea of male faces. Here’s the deal: Call of Duty: Black Ops had over 100 million accounts in January of 2014. And, let’s just say: I wasn’t one of them. So I answered his question “why don’t women code?” as honestly as I could.
“The working environment,” I told him. This is a conversation I’ve had with colleagues a number of times, and it generally follows a pattern, so his quizzical reply was not surprising.
“What do you mean by that?” he asked.
Explaining the concept of otherness to someone who has no real way of understanding it from your perspective is never easy. As I have been designing a STEM education project for girls, I have been asking myself this question, too. At what point do girls feel like they don’t belong in science, math and technology? When is it that they unconsciously decide they don’t belong or wouldn’t be welcomed if they joined?
As CodEd, an organization that teaches computer science to girls from underserved communities, suggests: “Only 18% of computer science majors in 2008 were women. That number has declined by over 50% in the past 20 years, and in 2008, only 7% of middle school girls thought that computer engineering would be a desirable career. For low-income students, the numbers are even more discouraging. Just 30 in every 10,000 low-income ninth-grade students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, and only one of those students will start graduate school in a STEM field immediately after graduation. Meanwhile, K-12 computer science education offerings decreased 35% from 2005 to 2009.”
I don’t think I told him anything he didn’t already know, if he looked around. In an industry that is underrepresented by women and an industry culture that is not always welcoming, the solution may not be to continue to wonder about why women don’t code, but to begin by actively listening about the existence of the problem they describe. Let our voice be heard. We want to be welcomed into the clubhouse. And, with 1,000,000 more expected jobs than students by 2020, you are going to need us.