Women in Technology

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Bringing Up Girl Geeks

by Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison is an independent consultant specialising in XML, XSLT, schemas and the semantic web.

I have two daughters, both still under the age of four. I'd really like them to become geeks, partly because it will mean we have something in common to talk about as they grow up (in the same way that I enjoy chatting about Linux with my dad), and partly because computing skills are useful in almost every part of life. They don't have to make a career out of it, but I want them to feel able to customize their blogs, administer their own servers, do regex search-and-replace, and so on. You know, the basics.

Natural ability and personality are obviously going to play their parts, and there's not much I can do about that now. My job is to make sure that nothing else limits them, and that, if they want to, they're able to use whatever logical aptitude they've inherited. I want them to be comfortable enough working with computers that they can choose exactly to what level they want to take it.

The good news is that computers are already part of their lives. It was the same for me, in fact. Growing up, we had computers in the house just as soon as they were affordable and I was encouraged to use them to play games, write essays and stories, draw, email, and chat.

Simply having had computers, using them, and seeing others use them—and get satisfaction out of using them—has one very important consequence: I'm not scared of them. It built up my self-efficacy with technology. This is particularly important with computing because so much is learned by just trying things out—if you're afraid to try because you're worried you might break something, you're not going to get very far.

The tricky thing about self-efficacy is that it's easy to knock down and hard to build up. Outright phobias can be triggered by something really small, usually a parent's anxious reaction to danger. Of course, with technology, my main fear is that the children will do something to the gadget rather than the other way around! It's hard to be laid back about toddlers poking remote controls and investigating my laptop, but whipping them away might build up bad associations, so I try to stay calm.

The biggest hurdle in getting my girls to be geeks is going to be the cultural assumption that girls aren't interested in or competent with computers. I'm prepared to attack these from three angles.

First, I can show my daughters that there are plenty of women who enjoy computing by showing them the books, TV programs, and web sites that star girl geeks. As their mother, I guess I'm going to be the most influential role model (just as my own mother's interest in mathematics encouraged mine), but if they do prove interested, there are also lots of online communities where they would be welcomed.

Second, I'm going to teach them that you can be interested in "boy things" and "girl things:" neither precludes the other. As humans, we naturally categorize; it helps us make sense of the world and it would be futile to pretend that computing isn't seen as a masculine activity. But theories of sex roles show that masculinity and femininity aren't opposite ends of the same scale. It's possible for individuals to be both masculine and feminine—known as having an androgynous sex role orientation—and some argue that having both sets of traits can be beneficial in that it gives someone a greater variety of ways of tackling problems. Androgynous people can be forceful or conciliatory, logical or empathic, mathematical or verbal, as the occasion demands.

So, I can try to encourage my daughters' masculine traits as well as their feminine ones, but I also intend to teach them the theory. I've found that simply knowing about sex roles has liberated me. It means that just because I have certain characteristics, behaviors, interests and attitudes that are masculine, I don't have to deny my femininity. I can be interested in the specifications of the newest laptops and the trendy bag in which to put it. I can enjoy solitary late-night hacking sessions and gossiping with other mums in the playground. In other words, I can be myself.

Third, I'm going to support my daughters if and when anyone—family, friends, teachers, colleagues—discourages them from pursuing computing, mathematics, science and so on. But I'm not going to encourage the assumption that the world is against them just because they're women.

I simply don't believe that most male geeks are sexist. I've never encountered explicit sexism. Where I have had difficulties getting along with fellow geeks, it's seemed to me to be more about misunderstandings and personality clashes than gender wars. As for being hit on, that's something that's present in every mixed group; it's hardly the unique preserve of the male geek.

I want to encourage an internal locus of control in my daughters. An internal locus of control is a belief that things happen to you because of the things you do (rather than due to luck, your environment or other people). It's an important predictor of happiness, because it places you in control of your own destiny. Teaching them that male geeks are out to disrespect, denigrate and bully them would hardly make them feel in control of their lives.

Finally, in my experience, people live up to or down to your expectations of them. If you assume that every guy you meet is a sexist jerk, you're unlikely to treat them particularly well, which will hardly put them on their best behavior. People treated with respect tend to treat others with respect.

As far as actually teaching my daughters about computing goes, I think they will get more out of practice than theory, so the closer the tasks are to what they want to achieve, the easier it will be to get them interested. The thing that turned me on to programming was creating objects in a MOO (a multi-user dungeon based on object-oriented code): things that I and my friends could interact with. Who knows what the computing world will be like when my kids are teenagers, but creating the equivalent of web pages, Facebook applications, or Firefox extensions would be great projects.

But I won't push programming as the only way to work with computers. Despite my father's best efforts, neither myself nor my sister (who's also now in IT) were ever interested in programming as children. We both took university courses that weren't primarily about computing (I took Psychology; she took Engineering, Economics, and Management), but that hasn't stopped us taking up computing as careers. In fact, I think the perspectives gained from our non-computing degrees have made us more able to cope with the non-programming aspects of computing, and, therefore, more well-rounded developers.

I will be very happy if my girls grow up to be geeks. But even if they don't, I think the lesson that they're individuals in control of their own lives is the most important that they — and indeed anyone — can learn.

Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Reading more about gender and computing and showing girls what cool jobs are available in this field by going to Girls with IT.

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