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Friday 13 April 2012

Talking to Girls in IT

I had the idea of a series of posts based on conversations with other women who do computer-related stuff from the very beginning of my personal blog's existence, but it turned out I needed a little extra push to put the thought into practice. The push finally came in the form of the GeeCON blog (the post will appear in both places). Yesterday I met up with 3 programmer girls (women, actually, we are all close to 30) to discuss women participation in computer science.

My first question was about the decision to study computer science, and the reactions of people around. Here is what the girls said:
  • Eliza (works with Delphi, C# and JS): Well, honestly, first I wanted to study psychology, but it turned out (and quite late!) that I suck at biology. I have always liked maths, so here I am. I would not say that my family had any particular kind of reaction to this field of studies. And I have always liked computer games, my first favourite was Boulder Dash.
  • Ewa (currently works with Rails and JS, but as a small company owner she also has professional experience in ASP, C#, PHP and Java): I felt attracted to computers since I was a kid. It was great pleasure for me to just sit at my mother's computer and copy folders (Eliza says: and you're sure there was no porn involved?) or play Prince of Persia. Both my parents have technical professions (telecommunications and programming), so they were very supportive, only fought a little about which of those two directions was better suited for me. I had not done any programming before going to university, though, unless you count AC Logo.
  • Magda (server-side Java, Android apps, Java web apps): I come from a family with maths traditions; both my parents are maths teachers, so in many ways it was a natural choice. I have always been good with computers. Besides, I like to solve abstract riddles. Programming to me is like playing with building blocks. My family was happy about this choice, mostly because it is a solid education.
(Am I the only one who actually did Basic programming on C64 I got as a First Communion gift?)

When asked about other studies possibilities they had considered, Ewa said she had thought about Polish studies for a while, but since you were only allowed to apply for 3 places, she left this idea behind. Magda graduated from both maths and computer science. At first she was interested in applied mathematics, but is now happy with the programmer job.

Eliza says she would not like her own child to study computer science, “because it is boring”. We disagree (completely!), but then admit that it is a job that is hard to talk about with people who do something else.

Then we discussed the females to males ratio at school and at work. The funny thing here is that in Polish ratio and attitude are the same word (stosunek), so the first thing Eliza answered was “we like them”. :)

Here are the numbers the girls gave me:
  • Eliza: 20-10 at secondary school (extended English class), 14-48 at university (my year, so you may recognize the number from a previous GeeCON post), 4-22 at work.
  • Ewa: 11-20 at school (science class), 14-48, 3-3 at current work (the project manager wants to hire girls, partly because it is a fashion-oriented project, and the boys have problems identifying with the product; the sweet Easter bunny that the girls put on th project website was heavily mocked).
  • Magda: 1/3 of girls at school (“but the girls did better”), she doesn't remember the numbers for uni because every class you had was with different people, 3-10 at work.
Then I asked the girls about whether they felt they were treated on the same terms as the boys while at university. I heard no hardcore stories, here is what they mentioned:
  • Magda: the ladies in the faculty office were always nicer for boys, especially those good-looking ones.
  • Ewa: there was this one professor who only talked to guys, even though I was the one who did most of the project, and he addressed us as "gentlemen".
Ewa mentioned another thing here: the professors -> students line was ok, but the same thing could not always be said about male students -> female professors. We had guys enrolling for a class lead by an attractive girl just because of the way she looked, completely dismissing her intellect.

Then I asked the same question, but this time about professional life.
  • Ewa mentioned business meetings in which the prospective partners only talked to guys, but she says it might be more of a personal presentation matter.
  • Eliza told us a recent story in which her colleague was having huge difficulties with a task, so she decided to help him and managed to find the solution in Google. When her boss heard about it, he told her “oh, so you just got lucky”.
  • Magda says she sometimes hears that she does certain (programming) things differently because she is a woman. “I am really angry about, what does it matter that I am a girl?”
My next question was about the number of girls in computer science. Is it natural? Is it that girls just do not want to do it, or are not skilled to do it, or is it something else? The general conclusion we came to is this: it makes no sense to force girls to do programming, but there is a lot of space left for encouragement. There is nothing wrong with the sheer fact that there are more men in computer science than women, but the current proportion does not reflect the real skills. It is a cultural thing: from early on we are told that “boys do better in sciences, and girls do better in arts”, or even that “boys are intelligent, but lazy, while girls are hardworking and mediocre”.

Stereotypes work both ways. We hear that “only ugly girls go to technical universities”, “girls in academic IT classes are there to find a husband easily”, but also that “if you choose technical studies, guys will pinch your bottom all the time”.

Ewa said she was at an official party some time ago, when the ACTA protests were at their peak. She was introduced to a Polish minister together with her brother-in-law, both as computer specialists, with stress on the fact that she is a programmer. The minister asked the guy about his opinion about ACTA, and when the guy said “I don't know, I haven't read it”, he dropped the subject, leaving Ewa with her plenty opinions unexpressed.

Back to the subject of the female-male ratio. We agreed that parities are nonsense here. Also, none of us would like to actually switch the proportions :) But more good girls in IT would be awesome! We all support girl-inclusion initiatives as long as they are healthy and do not exclude guys (but, let us face it, we are quite far away from that).

GeeCON audience, 2010. See what I am talking about? ;)
 Finally we tried to find aspects of IT work when we (or “most women”) actually perform different then men.

It seems that most girls do have better communication skills than most men, so having a few girls on the team usually has a positive effect on it. We have more patience in explaining stuff, also to non-IT people. We do not hate writing documentation so much! :) But sometimes this kind of task is not appreciated enough (in our opinion). It might be easier for us to admit we do not (yet!) know something. I am afraid this is not a good thing, with women starting sentences with “I think that” and men with “I am sure that“... We are not aware of any serious coding differences.

An anecdote (?) to finish with is as follows. A guy we know says he will not hire women, because he does not know how to talk to them. He says: “If I tell a guy he should do something differently, he says OK. If I say the same thing to a girl, she locks herself in the bathroom and cries all day”. Even when you ignore the fact that he would have to hire a girl to actually notice something like that - first, none of us cries for reasons like this (I cried in the bathroom at work twice in my life, both times after serious sexist remarks unrelated to my work). Second - my experience is this: a lot of people will say “OK”, but remember it and wait for an occasion to fight back just a little bit.

I will end this cheerful post with a quote from Magda:
I have chosen this profession because I like it. There are moments, though, when my frustration level reaches unknown heights! I do not understand girls who want to prove they are better then boys. Life is not about proving things to other people.

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