This story originally appeared on Women You Should Know, published August 6, 2012 .
My early memories of using a computer date to 2001. I stayed up past bedtime to play a modernized version of the arcade game Space Invaders (my favorite!) on my dad’s PC computer. The laptop was old, the screen cracked, and the keyboard was disintegrating. When I was done, I took apart the keys so that I could see the circuits underneath. I wondered how all of the coils in a machine could produce such incredible images on its screen.
As the years passed, my interest in technology has grown, whether it was to create a Harry Potter fan website at 13, participate in technical theatre through high school, or make movies and podcasts with friends. Last summer was the first time I ever took a course about computers. I participated in a specialized program at Pace University, and with my team, used Legos and a small computer brick for a robotics challenge. I was not only intrigued and excited by the subject, but it was there that I met the coolest nerds (and 10 of 22 were girls). Suddenly, being a geek didn’t seem so lonely anymore.
This summer, I joined the program again, this time as a counselor. However, this year, the number of girls had dwindled down to 5. What happened? Where had all the girl geeks gone? Was competition too fierce? Was it because of the “boys-only” image of computer science? Is computer science a just a boys network? Were girls afraid to embrace their inner “geek-dom”?
One of the problems I see is that there aren’t any visible role models for us girls. AlthoughMarissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo! is a certainly a woman to watch, she is definitely not a model of the “average working woman” in the field. As she takes over this position, she will become a new mother as well, but rather than juggling her work and home life like most working women have to do, she will be able hire an army of nannies for her child, if need be. Yes, she was also Google’s third-in-command, but shouldn’t there be more role models for us to look up to?
Paradoxically, part of my summer job was to research and help develop a strategy to recruit girls to technology-related fields of study. Through my research, I was shocked to find that only 25% of women in the workforce are employed in “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)-related fields, and that only 19% of undergraduate computer science majors are girls (The Guardian). On CalTech’s website, girls are even considered a minority. Why, in 2012, are girls not pursuing technology?
Perhaps it’s because it may be difficult for women to imagine themselves in tech-related fields. Many of my girlfriends are great at math and find science interesting, but would rather major in Spanish or literature than pursue anything related to numbers. They find it boring and don’t grasp how they can apply it to their interests or field of study. Without the image of a STEM woman role model (like a female Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, a nerd who then “makes it”), it becomes really difficult to see yourself as a woman fitting into this field.
In one of my favorite TV shows, The Big Bang Theory, Bernadette (a microbiologist with a PHD) and Amy Farrah Fowler (a neuroscientist with a PHD) constantly outsmart their male counterparts with their savvy comebacks and their super geeky knowledge of science and life. However, the men in the show, physicists and engineers, mock them for not pursuing the “hard sciences.” Neither woman sees herself as pretty or sexy, and the men see blonde and beautiful Penny, the sometimes actress, working waitress neighbor, as the “real woman”. Penny is the one girl character who gets all the laughs and attention from the men, even though she is not as educated as any of the other women characters.
That said, it took a long time for the male geek to be considered “chic”. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg made technology more accessible to the everyday person by enabling it to help people do their work efficiently, via easy access and updated information, or staying in contact with friends and loved ones. Facebook has over 800 million users, and the appeal, appreciation and awe of the common person’s ordinary life to its creators is a new phenomenon. Thirteen year old’s even know the names of these men, along with Justin Bieber’s. Unfortunately, despite the evolving image of the importance of technology and the sciences, women are still having to play catch-up. While there aren’t many women in tech to look up to now, it is also taking longer for girls to enthusiastically sign up.
I’m hoping that girls will prevail in technology. I hope that Marissa Mayer will succeed at Yahoo! and change the nature of that giant website, making it more successful than ever. I hope that my friends and I, as well as other girls, can pave a STEM lifestyle that is exciting to the next generation. As long as us girls can even begin to consider STEM, young women can and will have a chance to succeed in this growing, paramount field.
Go Geek Girls!