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 At the same time, the computer industry is hamstrung by outdated and inaccurate stereotypes.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.