I’ve been watching with interest the various posts about why there are so few women in tech and what can/should be done about it. This is an area that I have a fair amount of interest in and (of course) some personal experience.
So, here’s my opinion on the whole issue:
#1: When you talk about the lack of women in tech, don’t call it “lack of women programmers“.
Sure, long term it’d be great to have a more even split in that role, but that’s not really what it’s all about. By focusing on coding, you risk alienating women who don’t find that particular aspect of high-tech interesting (or maybe don’t find it interesting yet), but don’t know that there are plenty of technical things you can work on that don’t involve writing code.
#2: Figure out what makes computers fun for kids and encourage it. The learning will come later.
My parents were pretty forward looking in the early 80s and bought a PC and an Apple for home use (thinking back on it, it’s kind of amazing that in 1984 we had not one but two computers). I got into computers early on for gaming purposes (Oregon Trail ruleezzz!), but where it really started to get my interest was in the late 80s when I discovered BBSes and chatting (yes, how stereotypically female :-). I spent most of those years online making new friends, keeping up with old ones, etc. I didn’t know much about the software I was using, but I didn’t need to – the important thing was that I was using it, it was an integral part of my life.
#3: Make sure that the variety of career paths in high-tech are known to high school/college students
This relates back to #1 but it’s still a separate issue. In high school, I knew I wanted to do something with computers, but I wasn’t really sure what – I didn’t really know what the options were. I decided I wanted to do something that was a mix of business and computers, so I started out majoring in Management Information Systems since that was pretty much the only major that mixed the two. It took only a couple of semesters to discover my school’s idea of technology in the MIS track was to take a class on how to use Access and use a “gooey“, so I switched to Math/CS. Then I ran into #4 below. Fortunately for me, I lucked out and had an opportunity to come interview at Microsoft and, oddly enough, today I work in a fairly technical field with a mix of both business and software..
While casting about for what to do with my life after discovering how much I disliked programming, I asked the following question on a school newsgroup: “So why do I get the impression that the only “CS job” is that of a programmer?“. The response: “There’s no reason you can’t get a job which requires you to inquire of customers their preference for the addition of processed fried potatos to their requested purchase.“ While intended in jest, I clearly remember my reaction, figuring that there was no way I would succeed in CS so I might as well stop trying, since my only career opportunity was that of a coder.
#4: Remove/reduce social barriers to learning more about computers
I hated coding in college… and I was horrible at it. I’m not sure which came first. I started out really enjoying my Scheme class and I did very well in it (I remember sitting in labs long after I finished the homework, just coding up fun little applications to do weird things, usually sitting next to a friend doing the same thing). I did decently well in my C class but started to fumble when we got into the details of pointers, although I still kept up well enough to understand most of the material. The next year we started C++ and data structures and that’s where I started to hate coding. Where did it start to go south? When I wasn’t able to handle the material instinctively – when I needed help. Being the only female in a class is really intimidating if you want to ask a question – are you letting down your gender? Will your classmates make blonde jokes or worse yet, offer to ‘help tutor’ you?
Well, I’ve already started with #1 in this post. Now I pass that on to you – if you’re going to blog about the “women/high tech/blah blah“ issue, don’t get tunnel vision about programming.
I think that there are already some things happening that will encourage the next generation of women to be more involved in techology. Take #2 above for example… While BBSing and meeting people online was mostly unheard of on my day (“online“ wasn’t really a word, actually – I had to say “on the computer“ which didn’t really mean anything either), many kids nowadays can’t imagine a life without instant messaging, blogging, etc. And I believe I read recently that the majority of blogs created these days are from female teenagers. Lead with fun, the rest will follow. Game authors should find more games that appeal to women, actually market them, and make them work online (not like The Sims Online, which sucked because it just wasn’t fun).
Making the games work online is important to help appeal to women – chatting with people I’m playing with is one of the appealing parts of online gaming to me. I used to spend hours playing Euchre online with random people. I also enjoyed playing Doom (mostly with the cheats enabled (idkfa!) because it’s just more fun that way) and in more recent years have spent many an hour with the Age of Empires series or that year of my life I lost to Asheron’s Call. For example, I keep hearing about more games being added to Xbox live, which is great – but they seem to all be FP shooters or sports games; there are few games like competitive tetris (which, to be fair, is on Xbox live but is apparently one of few puzzle-type games), or bust-a-move, or other types of games that in general tend to appeal to more women than men.
As far as #3 goes, there are some obvious areas for improvement: make every CS student take at least one class on technical project management or UNIX/Windows/Apple systems administration or [gasp] software testing. Make sure every career counselor is educated on the available career paths and the major companies who hire for those jobs. Invite people in those roles to come and talk at career day. Heck, start earlier… when the third grade class has parents in for career day, make sure you get a lawyer, a doctor, a policeman, a programmer, a tester, a sysadmin. Target the content to the appropriate level, of course – “I am responsible for making sure that windows solitaire works! So I get to play solitaire all day long!“.
In my case, I didn’t like coding, but all of my friends used Linux and I decided I wanted to try that too (not for any religious motives… I remember one of the reasons being that I thought it would be cool to have a .wav file play on my machine when a friend /msg’d me on IRC and no one knew how to do that on Windows). So fast forward a year, and I’ve been enjoying my linux machine enough that I had learned a lot more about it and I ended up working at jobs running linux/bsdi systems and networks and labs of windows & apple machines. Even while I hated going to class, I loved my job.
A side point here: I do enjoy coding these days, but I still don’t code for the fun of it, I code to solve problems. So I mainly do things like extend Office applications with VBA, to automate repetitive tasks, etc. Perhaps this is an area where colleges could improve, to not stuff the theory down students’ throats in the beginning, but start with real-world applicability – pick a problem you want to solve, then we’ll teach you how to write some software to solve that problem. Or what about teaching perl as one of the first languages? I remember wishing I had a .sig randomizer, and ended up getting a boyfriend to write the perl script for me. Instead, I had one class where we learned FORTH. Gee, that was useful.
As for #4? Well, I don’t really have a lot of personal experience in how to solve this problem. I’ve seen “women-only classes“ or such efforts fail, but I’m not sure why. But I know that if I’d had the opportunity to choose between a C++ class with a female teacher and other women in the class versus the one I did take, there would have been no question in my mind.
 I went to Redmond High School last year to talk to a bunch of juniors and seniors about program management/testing. Unfortunately, they were mostly interested in whether or not I’d met Bill, and if I got a discount on Xboxes :-). But hopefully they at least walked out of the room knowing more about the career paths.
 My mom got a degree in Math in the 60s. She was a punchcard programmer at IBM. She used visicalc to calculate her taxes. I am incredibly proud of her for her atypical, geeky history. Of course I recognize that my parents early geekiness definitely helped me get a head start, with two computers in the house (and that doesn’t count the suitcase compaq my dad brought home from work) and all that.
 Several months before Y2K, she told me: “I don’t know why everyone’s so worried about Y2K. The real concern is 9/9/99, since everyone knows that 9999 is END OF JOB!”