Sunday, June 7, 2009

I Am Woman, Hear Me Geek

The number of women majoring in Computer Science made some gains in
the 1980s, but began a precipitous slide in the 1990s. And in today's tough
job market, it is not an easy ride, even if you're a female.

Although my computer science education began as a "nontraditional"
(meaning: older) student, I immediately became aware that it was
highly competitive, and the number of females in class was low. In
order to succeed, you needed to survive classes intended to "separate
the men from the boys." I had a good academic track record and was
used to competing scholastically.

What I didn't have was the sporting mentality. The idea was not only
to get to the goal (and get your praise), but also to run over the
competition. The guys all seemed to get this, as did the male
instructors. If you asked a fellow student what yesterday's
assignment was, you were likely to get a smirk for an answer.

What about the few female students and instructors? Were their faces
being pushed into the muck? Were they indignantly spluttering as they
flung mud aside like GI Jane? Nope, 'fraid not. They were generally
helpful and supportive. What's with that, women? Are you a man or a
mouse? I think the answer is that they are women first and geeks
second. If called upon to act like a rodent, they tend to lose

How can you keep your hard-won female or minority geeks from scurrying
away? The following advice applies to both men and women:

1. Get or be a mentor. Although I eventually completed my master's
degree, I suffered many moments of self-doubt. What made the moments
bearable was having a mentor, who empathized and provided suggestions
for survival strategies. The same self-doubt happens to male students,
but they are conditioned to tough it out. Females do better if they
have someone to share the suffering with. Whether male or female, the
INTJ/Green personality geek wants friends, preferably smart ones.

Having a mentor makes you feel valued.

Mentors commonly feel that they learn as much by mentoring as they
teach. It is gratifying to feel appreciated.

2. At work, let females get a word in edgewise at meetings. You might
find they have some good ideas if encouraged to express them. The
stereotype that women will chatter aimlessly about their feelings at
meetings is bogus, because they are rarely given a chance to chatter
at all.

3. When bonding with fellows, allow females to participate in
conversations about sports and technical issues. Female geeks like
these topics. What they don't like are long discussions about
people you used to work with that they never met. Notice the new
friends sitting in front of you.

4. Keep stretching your geek's comfort level. If she has never led a
quality assurance team, rotate the leadership among the team
members. The rest of the team may see that they are safe with your
geek as both leader and co-worker.

5. Be scrupulously fair in handing out promotions and raises. Trust is
crucial, and once lost causes the geek to seek other
opportunities. When justifying why a raise was given to someone
else, the logically minded geek must find nothing to argue with.
Do not let your female geek think she might be worth less than a
male geek.

6. Encourage "showing your stuff." This can be done on the job via
plum assignments, or it could be by giving back to the
community. This is a two-way street. Just as you enjoy mentoring,
your female or minority protege will enjoy being able to show
others how they got where they are and what they do. The community
in turn will see that being a geek is not all about being alone in
a cubicle and that science and IT offer interesting and relevant
career opportunities.

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