The Role Model Problem

A bunch of my friends are at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this week. I’m following some of it on Twitter (look for the #ghc09 tag) and on the Grace Hopper Bloggers blog. I think this is a wonderful event and people I know who go come back all charged up and empowered and with expanded personal networks. I see it as one of the most important events of the year for increasing the number of women in technology fields. And for preventing us from losing them. As I wrote earlier this week (Why Does Diversity Matter) I see diversity as very important. As a male in the highly male computing industry it is sometimes hard for me to picture what it must be like for women. It’s easy for men and boys to find and see male role models in the field. For women and girls not so much. Ben Chun posted an example of this on his blog (This Is Not Helping). I did have one year long role reversal career experience and it opened my eyes a lot.

For a year I was a teacher in an elementary school where I was the only adult male in the building. It was eye opening. For one thing I had to get used to little children addressing me as “Mrs. Thompson.” Most my my students had never had a male teacher. For all they knew “Mrs.” was what teachers were called. At six foot even I towered over most of the people at teacher events which made it hard to be inconspicuous and as a first year teacher I would have like to have been inconspicuous. So my role models were women and frankly dealing with students as a man is different from dealing with them as a man. Society all too often looks suspiciously at men in early education. I was also aware that many of the young boys viewed education, learning and especially teaching as a woman’s thing. They did not see themselves as scholars or that learning necessarily applied to them. It made me think of the even greater struggles girls must have seeing themselves in the computing fields.

Events like Grace Hopper helps women in the industry to see that they are not alone. They are not weird. They do belong. Plus they can learn from each other, connect with each other, and support each other. But what of girls who don’t get to know to GHC or even know about it? There we have to get more proactive. There are groups working on this. For example:

They are all great programs for professional women to get involved in to help bootstrap the process of helping more women and girls to see themselves in the field. There are other resources to show girls their is room for them in the field. I always enjoy the WM_IN series of interviews with women at Microsoft for example. I regularly try to blog about resources for people interested in seeing more diversity in the field. Use the Diversity tag on my blog to look for some previous posts on the subject.


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