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You Can’t Be What You Can’t See: How to Get More Women in Tech

This article is part of a three-part series, Solving the Pipeline Problem: How to Get More Women in Tech. If you missed it, read about the first problem: Many girls don't know what computer science is.

Problem #2: You can't be what you can't see

Even people who don’t know what a computer scientist actually does would recognize the quintessential stereotype of one: a pale, sweaty Star Wars fan hacking into the Pentagon from his gadget-filled basement.

Indeed, “hacker” culture is frequently described as overrun with techie boys who care only about computers—not a place for extroverted girls with passions ranging from healthcare to education to business to fashion.

Media depictions of computer scientists only serve to further alienate women from the profession. When I watched Revenge of the Nerds as a child, it was hard to relate to a nearly all-male cast.

Turns out, I’m not alone.

“I don’t fit the stereotype at all, and I’m very aware of it,” complains Kathy Cooper, a Stanford University master’s candidate in computer science. “People always say, ‘You don’t look like a computer scientist.’” She overcame the challenge, but has seen many like her opt out of a career path in tech because they don’t feel like they fit in. “Most of my female peers just don’t imagine themselves as computer scientists, so they don’t do it.”

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 Sundance documentary Miss Representation features insights from many great minds about why women are under-represented in positions of power and influence. One of the most striking quotes in the film comes from Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Though hyperbolic, Edelman’s quote touches on a key barrier to women in computer science: a dearth of strong role models. Without other women to look up to, many young women are self-selecting out of a technical career path before they even really give it a chance.

The Solution: Celebrate role models that girls can look up to

When young female coders are asked to name a role model in computer science, most of them are hard pressed to come up with more than one: Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President of Location and Local Services, is the unofficial mascot of technical women everywhere.

“[Mayer] is a great role model because she’s extremely intelligent,” says Sophia Westwood, a junior majoring in computer science. Cooper agrees, adding that she looks up to Mayer because, “her visibility helps people realize that you don’t have to look a certain way to be a great computer scientist.”

But while Marissa Mayer is indisputably a great role model for young women coders, she alone cannot carry the burden of inspiring a generation. We need to find 10 more Marissa Mayers—incredibly talented and well-respected computer scientists who just happen to be women.

Girls need to see that computer scientists come in all shapes and sizes. “I don’t see myself as a female engineer. Just as an engineer,” says Twitter software engineer Sara Haider.

Sure, some programmers fit the male stereotype, but the new generation of computer scientists includes women like Stephanie Volftsun, a software engineer at Silicon Valley financial technology company Addepar. She explains what it’s like to hang out with her close friend, a programmer for digital music startup Rdio: “She and I go to bars and tell people we’re software engineers, and they don’t believe us because of how we look. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Volftsun says she doesn’t have any female role models in her field, but she wants to change the stereotype for future generations. “I’m a fun, energetic, and social. I want young girls to know that a computer scientist can look like me.”

And we all need to be part of that change. Let’s not let grievances about the lack of women in tech ignore the women who are already there. We need to recognize women like Haider and Volftsun who’ve blazed trails in their fields, and celebrate others like them.

Changing our cultural perceptions of what a computer scientist looks like will take a concerted effort across different kinds of media. If you’re in film or television, consider casting a woman in a technical role. When you talk about a programmer, don’t always default to the male pronoun.

Personally, I’m starting with something simple: an online gallery of photos of women who can proudly proclaim, “I am a computer scientist.” If you know someone we should add, please submit a photo. If you know a young girl who thinks she doesn’t fit the part, show her the gallery and change her mind.

If we, as a culture, can change how we envision computer scientists, that's an important step in the effort to encourage more women to pursue programming careers. But how do we make sure that girls learn the hard skills necessary to follow their dreams? Continue reading in Part 3: Leveling the Playing Field.

Photo courtesy of Veni Markovski.