Time and again throughout history, when we strive for social change, an odd thing happens. We have a hell of a time of thinking, talking about, or working for change without narrowing our focus to a specific group (or very limited groups) that change would benefit.
Social change is complex, difficult, and usually gradual, and intersectionality — socially interconnected categorizations, especially as they pertain to disadvantage or discrimination — exacerbates that. Tech isn’t excluded from this.
I bet you think this column is going to be about getting more women into tech, or encouraging more diversity among women in tech, or abolishing sexism and misogyny in tech.
Amazingly enough, no. The area of needed change under the microscope this week is tech careers. And in the crosshairs is… coding.
When the issue of getting girls into STEM and women into tech comes up, the topic of teaching females to code is rarely far behind. These days the idea that Everyone Should Learn To Code is so pervasive that a backlash has started to spread. (Which isn’t a bad thing.)
But here’s the thing: software development is one skill/career in tech. Not everyone in tech is suited to learn to code. Not everyone in tech wants to learn to code. And tech needs a whole lot of people to do a whole lot more things than coding.
But in reading tech news feeds you’d be hard-pressed to know that.
This affects men, too, but we don’t have a problem getting men into tech in general. What we’re looking at is an even harder part of an already hard problem. I suspect for guys it might manifest more as: “I am already a developer and no longer want to be one” or “I’m graduating with a computer science degree but don’t want to be a developer”.
One of the rare occasions on which girls might get exposed to other tech careers is Take Your Daughter To Work Day. But even then, they’d only get a one-day glimpse at life as a sysadmin, database administrator, software tester, engineer, tech writer, or data scientist. (And yes, those classic issues for women in tech, like diversity, male-dominated culture, etc. apply here as well.)
Certainly, University of Waterloo has programs like Catalyst and Go ENG Girl, as two examples, which introduce girls and young women to the wide world of engineering. But we don’t have Ladies Learning Network Administration or Black Girls Document Specs. And we need that, too.
I get it: exposing people to those careers and making them look sexy can be hard. Telling people they’ll make a lot of money and make big things go doesn’t always cut it. And yes, those careers are usually male-dominated, too. (With the possible exception of QA and tech writing, but then you get exposed to the dumb argument about whether those are really tech careers.)
That said, in terms of making an impact and helping people, which I’m told are ways to make those careers appeal to girls, making big things that help society function well, or preventing technology from killing people, are pretty solid results.
I understand, too, that it’s easier to sit a bunch of girls down with laptops for a Saturday afternoon to teach skills and develop interests than it is to show them the nuts and bolts of a municipal water treatment facility or a network’s security systems. But we can’t leave it to the provincial government to do our advertising for us.
Have any of those ads encouraging people to go into the trades ever made you want to jump ship for the hard hat life?
Sure, things like Goldieblox are a good start, but also pretty abstract. You’re about as likely to use those directly in a tech career as you are to use LEGO or TinkerToys. Female relatives like moms, aunts, and grandmas who are already in these careers have a leg up.
They’re already normalizing women in tech, and, as importantly, familiarizing their families with these jobs and women doing them. But there aren’t that many of them, and not everyone sees them.
It’s well and good to tell girls they can be anything they want to be, but then we have to back that up by showing them All The Things. We don’t generally dream of and plan to become something we don’t know exists. (Though my six-year-old niece currently wants to be a fairy mermaid.)
On top of that, many jobs of the future don’t exist yet. Community management, which I’ve spent a number of years doing, didn’t when I was in school.
The best we can do here, I think, is show kids these skills and careers now, as broad a range of them as possible. Show kids what we build, change, and improve with them, and give them ideas about what they could be used for.
And then, when the future arrives and we need rocket surgeons, we’ll have a generation of kids, ideally including lots of girls, all set to tackle those problems and possibilities.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech.