Monday, March 1, 2010

Inspiring Teen Women to be Techy

This past Saturday, Foothill College hosted a crowd of 250 female middle- to high schoolers for a day of learning about everything from game programming to how to lead a tech startup. Dare2BDigital was designed to give young women in the 7-10th grades a chance to learn about exciting possibilities in computer science and engineering. This was the first year for the conference, which I hope will become annual event. This seems to be the moment for girls in tech. Similar conferences and events are popping up around the world. (There's even one in Israel, organized by two Israeli Google engineers--if you read Hebrew, check out this article.)

Looking around the room at the end of the day, I flashed on the final dinner scene near the end of every "Harry Potter" movie. There they all were at long tables, packed into the cafeteria. There was the same sense of inspiration and celebration; a feeling that we had all come through the experience and as a result, something inside us had changed.

Then it hit me--the difference was that I was standing in the middle of a room full of Hermiones. If you want a good sense of the day, check out the Twitter hashtag #Dare2BDigital. One of our two live bloggers, Vania of Vabulus Media has posted a good chunk of the tweets on her blog. Our other live blogger, Liz Burr (known as @calinative on Twitter) was on the spot with plenty of interesting observations. This was one of my favorites--tweeted directly from a workshop on web site programming:

Why this age group? Studies show that this is the age when most of us start thinking about what kind of career we'll pursue. At the same time, the computer industry is hamstrung by outdated and inaccurate stereotypes. Many young women are just like I was at that age--they're good at math and science, but they can't picture themselves locked in a basement somewhere, slamming Jolt colas and coding till their eyes go funny.

As conference leader Anne Hardy of SAP explained to me on my weekly women in tech podcast, TechnoGirlTalk, many young women want to do something that gives back to the world. They want to help animals, or the environment. They're also interested in work that involves being artistic and creative. What they might not know is that computer science offers all of this in spades. The workshops and speakers at this conference gave the girls plenty of food for thought. Morning keynote speaker Fei Fei Li, assistant professor at Stanford University Computer Science Department, told the girls that she had a number of challenges as an immigrant to the U.S. from China--but found a home and many worthwhile challenges in computer science. Afternoon keynoter Karen Gundy-Burlet, research scientist at NASA-Ames talked about how her testing and designs enable astronauts to function better on missions. One of her designs was even adapted on a Star Trek movie!

Why an all-female conference? Honestly, this wasn't something that was discussed very much during the event. Maybe because the answer seemed obvious--when girls get together without boys they're more likely to speak up, take risks, and generally take in more learning. But I think there might be another, more subtle reason. Watching the young women interact throughout the day, I couldn't help but notice how much they had to say about what they were learning. They weren't talking about makeup or boys (or if they were, I didn't hear that). They were talking about the Zynga game they'd created, or the fun they had simulating the course of a bit of information as it travels through the pipes of the Internet. In other words, the participants were directly experiencing what it is like to be in a career in computers.

When they looked around at one another they saw a whole lot of other female faces looking back. There's little danger women will entirely take over the computer industry (and this is obviously no one's goal), but there was a sense of creating a new digital culture. It will have many different skin tones, a diversity of skills, and a rich mixture of thoughts and ideas. If this was a peek into the future of high tech, I want to be there.

Photos: Martin Stein, conference co-founder. The remainder are at this link. Also please look out for a video created by the students in my workshop on tech reporting, which will be posted soon.


Anonymous said...

Very nice writeup, especially the discovery of the hogwarts-hall effect.

The decision to make this an all-women conference was taken fairly early. We thought that the presence of boys (or too many men even) would change the "chemistry" of workshops and subsequently the behavior of the participants. I think the only-girls format served us well as most gender, rivalry or other issues were prevented.

Martin Stein, Dare2BDigital co-founder

Sunshine said...

The Hogwarts Effect. That should've been my headline!

Dave Briccetti said...

I noticed that the girls in my Scratch programming class at the event seemed reluctant to speak up, and wonder if they would have been more comfortable with a female presenter (like most of the other sessions had). In any case, they did well and clearly enjoyed themselves, as did I.

Sunshine said...

Great to hear that Dave. And even if there was some initial discomfort, the fact that you had that level of awareness says that you were probably doing a great job making it safe for them. Thanks for the comment!

Crystal C. Yan said...

I totally didn't see the Hogwarts connection until this post! Thanks, Hermione was always my favorite character. *jumps giddily at being likened to Hermione*

Crystal C. Yan
Trilingual Chinese-American 17-yrs-young Social Entrepreneur, Blogger, Graphic Designer.

StarShineSpeaks! said...

Very inspiring! I think it goes along with all the recent studies about when you teach women they are more likely to share what they've learned with others. Great post!

nick donnelly said...

Why was this split into female only?

This is the fundamental point of the article - but you don't really answer it.

It seems it's either

a) Because tech is HUGELY male dominated and you conclude that that's somehow bad (actually there's a lot of evidence that tech, eg programming - is a very 'male brained' skill - mainly men are male brained - so therefore men are mentally pre disposed to tech).

b) Girls learn best in single sex groups.

I think you need to be very clear about this - and you skirt over it strangely.

If the reason is b - there may be evidence to support this. If it's a - then Im not convinced this is a 'problem to solve'.

Sunshine said...

Thanks for your comment. Enjoying our back and forths on our respective blogs on the whole ball of gender wax as it were. I don't think I skirt the question you raise so much as confess I don't have all the answers. To point (b), there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that girls learn better in single sex groupings. As I understand it, the organizers knew this which is why they chose to structure the conference as they did.

To your more controversial question (a): Is it bad that high tech is male dominated if, after all, it's more of a male-brained skill? Yes, I think it is. There are a number of reasons for this, but the one that leaps out at me is that we're missing out on what could be some awesome talent, and therefore will be less competitive at some point down the road.

As it happens, I believe that as we evolve as a society, the evidence that we women aren't as good at technical skills will start to become less airtight. (Just a guess.) But even if it's true that men are and will always be better at certain tech skills, that's hardly the entire field of high tech anymore. In fact, that's part of what the conference was designed to address.

It was responding to the growing options within this rapidly changing, complex and highly flexible field. The girls were totally excited about programming if it meant that they were creating art, games, virtual worlds and so on.

So to me what we're dealing with is a need to update an older, entrenched culture where certain traits are valued over others.

As ESG analyst Steve Duplessie recently pointed out, one reason tech companies fail is because they don't recognize the importance of marketing. They think their product should just stand on its own merits and therefore sell itself. But it doesn't, because today's marketplace requires a better grasp of human psychology than that. In short, many tech companies lack so-called "soft" skills that women often possess: creativity, kindness, listening, ethics, big picture thinking, cooperativeness, empathy, and so on.

Of course, these are just generalizations. I know plenty of women who prefer to sit in their cube programming all day and lots of men who are all about communication.