Women in Technology

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Inspiration: Pass It On

by Gabrielle Roth

Gabrielle Roth is a Network Engineer, but is still a biology geek at heart. She lives in Portland, OR with a small but ambitious Monstera deliciosa, Mia.

When I was young, I spent my free time at the local creek, finding as many different kinds of frogs as I could; exchanging messages with my friends on the block in codes I'd invented; or disappearing up a tree with my latest library book so I could read in peace. I didn't really fit in with the girls my age and there were few female role models available to me. But then I met Mrs. Roberts, my tenth grade biology teacher. She was smart, cool, and took no BS from anyone. I was absolutely enchanted with the view through a microscope, and I decided I wanted to be a scientist just like her: designing intriguing experiments and maybe even discovering a new microorganism or plant. Plus, she got to wear a lab coat every day, and how cool is that? I graduated from Virginia Tech with a biology degree, and went on to spend several years at my dream job as an immunologist/microbiologist in a Federal food safety lab.

I made the leap to IT when I moved to Oregon and got a writing/web design internship, which I turned into a network management position, filling a few diverse roles: network engineer, database administrator, programmer, sometime technical writer and systems administrator. Networking, troubleshooting, and databases are my favorite parts of my job, probably due to their similarities with lab work: a network is another living system to study, troubleshooting is just like running an experiment in the lab (remove as many variables as you can, and then start testing), and what better way to organize and analyze your data than with a database?

Early on in my IT career, I was introduced to Multi Router Traffic Grapher (MRTG) and Round Robin Database tool (RRDTool): two well-known Open Source projects (usually) used for network performance monitoring. I was fairly active on those communities; my involvement lately has declined due to time constraints. I'm a semi-regular attendee of the Portland Perl Mongers, and one of the founding members of the Portland PostgreSQL users group (PDXPUG).

Most of the F/LOSS projects I've participated in online (as a user or general list know-it-all) have accepted my input with no "Wow! A female!" fanfare. That's the way it should be. It took a little while with the local users' groups (LUGs) before anyone would talk to me; whether that's shock at seeing OH NOES A GURL or general geek shyness (on their part or mine), I don't know. I choose to chalk it up to the latter, and now several of the attendees of that user group are my close friends.

Over the past couple of years, several men have asked me personally how to fix the gender imbalance in F/LOSS: "You're a woman, you like it here, don't you have friends you can bring? How do we get more women here?" assuming that I'd have answers. I don't. It's true, I do "like it here." It's a heck of a lot of fun when somebody says "Thanks for doing all that work so I don't have to!" It all boils down to solving puzzles and fixing things; I get enormous satisfaction from making something work the way it's supposed to. However, my non-geek female friends—although very impressed by my bike repair skills—are not remotely interested in my Adventures with Databases; the few female IT friends I have are already involved in F/LOSS.

What I do know is that women will not stay involved when they are deliberately shoved aside, like a story I heard recently about a woman being approached at a conference booth and asked "Is there a guy around who can answer my question?" (My response to that would be "Why? Do you need a guy to tell you you're a jackass?" which I acknowledge is not conducive to continuing the dialogue.) Here's how to fix this, taken directly from my own experience at OSCON 2007: one of the guys at the booth asked me if I was answering my fair share of questions, and when I said, "Not really," we came up with the solution that the men at the booth would turn over certain questions to me and then walk away, leaving the questioner with no choice but to talk to me. This also required a bit of effort on my part to get over my shyness in social situations, but it worked fabulously.

I can give such examples as this all day, but the bottom line is: I don't know how to increase the numbers of women in IT. I see a willingness to change it within the community, but I feel that we're stagnating while we sit around waiting for someone to say, "Do [x] and we will magically solve the gender imbalance in IT." My motivational style tends to be "Size 7 1/2 boot to the ass", so the conclusion I've reached for myself is that it's time to quit analyzing the situation to death and to just get moving and start trying different things—sort of an open-ended experiment. My first goal is to be more visible, so I can set an example and inspire someone else, just as Mrs. Roberts did for me.

Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Reading more about how stereotypes turn girls off to math and science, becoming that role model for a girl out there by joining a group such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

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