Last week I had the amazing opportunity of teaching Girls in Data Science, a one-day workshop organized by Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona), and aimed at introducing teenage girls to STEM disciplines. Our Capstone project was an automatic detector of cholesterol levels, programmed in Python, with the girls completing this task masterfully. On top of that, we all had lots of fun together. So I asked myself: Will any of them choose to pursue a tech career later in life? The odds are certainly not in their favor.
The Ugly Truth
Despite the gender imbalance being a mainstream topic of debate, the situation doesn’t seem to be improving much – if at all. The big question still remains: Why don’t more girls choose to study STEM?
1. Hiya Barbie – Looks Do Matter
At the end of the Girls in Data Science Workshop, one of the teenagers approached me and said that, for an engineer, I had really cool hair. Is it possible that a girl in STEM really does need to be bold?
Well, perhaps not bold, but, according to Google Images, women in tech do need to look nerdy and dead boring, otherwise they may have problems proving they are a good tech professional.
Consequently, because girls are raised to value appearance, and are overwhelmingly praised more, as they develop, for how they look and act rather than what they think and do, they will not choose a career that sentences them to be, in effect, ugly cows.
Instead, little girls will pick a degree that accords with their looks, so that when adults approach them before they can even talk, and say things like, “Oh, how pretty you are!” “How beautiful!” it makes them feel valued and supported.
Would this happen to a little boy? Never say never, but we all know it is very unlikely and, unfortunately, such behaviors take a lot of effort and a long time to change.
In the meantime, Hacker Girl (an awesome Facebook sticker) came to save my day. She may still be a bit too geeky for some, but I swear, one of these days, I am getting pink hair too (or at least a party wig). Now that would be cool hair for real!
2. Self-fulfilling Prophecies and Other Black Magic
The idea that boys are better suited than girls for technical stuff is as much a part of our society as the USB Pet Rock or the Goldfish Walker.
The big problem is that this, “boys are better at math,” thinking drives girls away from STEM fields before they even consider it. At the end of the day, why should a girl want to bother at all? If she gets good grades in math, she will be seen by her teachers and schoolmates as a hard-working student (but never brilliant), in the best of situations.
If, somehow, she manages to overcome these entry barriers and asks for a recommendation letter to get a tech job later on, such a letter will probably be full of (un)conscious gender biases that will put her at a disadvantaged position against male candidates.
3. Much to Learn You Still Have, My Old Padawan
When we are growing up, we look to our role models for inspiration and use this as a blueprint for how we should behave when we’re older. Thus, if successful women show girls what they have achieved in life, they can inspire them to also pursue a career in STEM later on.
The trouble is that, despite the figure of a mentor being highly important, there are very few female role models in STEM.
It is well known that, worldwide, women are a minority within the tech industry (accounting for less than 20% in their respective countries), but if we take a closer look, we will discover that the number of women in tech jobs are even fewer than it may, at first, seem.
Most women at tech firms don’t actually code, and not because they have moved up the corporate ladder to management positions (more female leaders are needed anyway), but because they have never held a technical job. I have looked at quite a few women in tech panels that turned out to be like this:
My Pretty Little Lie
At this stage, you yourself will have noticed that this blog post is not about how Big Data is Revolutionizing the Bacon Industry. However, if you have read thus far, this probably means you are either a woman in tech already (hurray!!), you have become increasingly interested in the topic, or you actually believed that, at some point, I would explain how Data Science is taking bacon obsession to a whole new level.
If the latter applies, I encourage you to check this very interesting article and learn about a data-mining project from the folks at Wired.com and FoodNetwork.com that studied whereas bacon truly is a magical ingredient that makes any dish taste better.
In any case, let me say a big THANK YOU for sticking around and reading through this article. My list was by no means exhaustive but I believe it highlights some of the issues that need to be considered when fighting gender discrimination in the tech industry.
May the Odds Be in Her Favor
As Phineas and Ferb would say…
There’s 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it
So why not learn how to code?
Regardless of your gender, age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, learning how to code will empower you to do things you can’t even imagine right now. And if you are a woman, you will be crushing gender stereotypes at the same time.
So, how can you get started? My personal favorite course for beginners is, The Python Bible™ | Everything You Need to Program in Python, but there are tons of free, awesome courses online.
P.S. Another great way to spend your summer vacation is to lie under a beach umbrella with your friends doing simply nothing. If you have no beach nearby, or no friends, your life is sad – but do not cry. This means you will learn how to code even faster.