Get them while they’re young.
It’s a phrase that’s been attributed to many large international groups and organisations over the years, from the tobacco industry to the Catholic Church. And it’s now one that seems to be being applied to women working in technology.
There is a general consensus that unless girls are encouraged into technology before they hit puberty, they are unlikely to pick it up as a career.
I’d like to call bullshit on that sentiment. Yes, of course it’s important to give girls and boys access to technology at a young age and expose young girls to inspiring women working in tech. The ‘if she can see it she can be it’ mentality definitely applies.
What I disagree with is that it’s the only way to encourage women into tech. Completely and absolutely.
When I was at secondary school, I applied to study ICT (as it was back then. I’m pretty sure the ‘I’ is information, and ‘T’ for Technology, but the ‘C’ remains a mystery.).
Unlike the other GCSE choices there was a test to see whether or not we were skilled enough already to take the subject as a double GCSE, a single GCSE or as an extra, meaning we’d be able to do it in our spare time. I was hoping for the latter. I already had History and Theatre lined up as I’ve always considered myself a Humanities girl at heart, but was really excited to learn about all that ICT could teach me as well.
I took the test on a slow computer that didn’t load, surrounded by male friends I was desperate to impress, and at the end was told in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to be on the course I would have to take it as a double GCSE. This would mean dropping both of my chosen subjects and only getting one GCSE rather than two at the end of it all.
The fact that I’d done well in ICT up to that point didn’t factor into it. We were told we needed a certain level of ability and knowledge before we’d even started and I didn’t have that.
And after that point I dismissed IT as something I couldn’t do. I presumed that my technical know-how was sub-standard and that there wasn’t anything I could do that anyone else couldn’t.
Over a decade later I am working for a tech startup, learning Python in my spare time, and am considered amongst many of my friends and family as their personal IT help desk. I’ve helped my step mum with her work computer when the IT department at the school she teaches at were too busy to fit her in (the same IT department that turned me down all those years ago) and I am looking to learn more.
This is my point. It took me years to get over that disappointment and that belief that I was not good enough/smart enough or whatever else. But I did.
And it makes me wonder how many other women feel the same way.
My mum, for example, who I’ve never considered to be particularly technical and would never describe herself like that, has an amazing willingness to learn when it comes to technology. In her 60s, she might be expected to dismiss technology as something that’s “beyond her” but she doesn’t. She is remarkably keen to embrace innovations in whatever shape they come.
She is the only person in my family I know who downloaded Periscope, assuring me when I asked her why she had it that “everyone’s got it”. Not true, but not the point. And she is never scared to hit a button just to see what it does.
It seems to me that there are lots of women out there who could have the same potential who have dismissed tech or have been dismissed by others in the industry.
So while it is important to teach girls at school about getting involved, dismissing everyone over the age of 18 as already set on their path would be far too easy a mistake to make.