Women in Tech - what's the problem?

 Last Saturday-week Sligo hosted over 200 delegates at DojoCon2014, the global conference for CoderDojo mentors.  These are people who gather in schools, community centres, universities, business premises and other venues every Saturday to teach kids in their communities the basics of coding. They do this mostly to experience the sheer magic of seeing a child run with a virtual spark of an idea and bring forth that idea into the world.  They help these kids to be able to communicate their ideas and to collaborate with others to create coding solutions.

Among the many very fine speakers at DojoCon2014 coordinated by our wonderful MC, Ann O'Dea from Silicon Republic, were Debbie Forster of Apps for Good, Mags Amond on computational thinking, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin on the pedagogy of teaching tech, Kate McDonald on the amazing young people of Young Rewired State, James Corbett on Mission V (he generously brought along his Occulus Rift for delegates to try out), Stephen Howell on Microsoft's Kinect and Project Spark and so many - more of that anon...

I participated on the CoderDojo Girls and Diversity Panel and an interesting discussion emerged on the issue of attracting girls into technology - and retaining them in the industry.  A number of points from this discussion are still circling in my head:

A common reaction to the issue of the lack of girls and women in technology is 'what's the problem?'.  And in an ideal world, I would agree.  Our gender *should not* be a factor in slowing our progress in this field.  But wishing that were so does not make it our felt reality.  As one of a very few women in my IT organisation, I sometimes feel the weight of being 'the only one'.  

bell hooks talks about when women get some concessions or position in a previously male-dominated domain, this can actually serve to silence them - as now they have something to lose in speaking up about wider inequalities. Is this a feature of being a woman in tech?  I'm not sure - but I think it is worth keeping in the back of our minds.  Something to be mindful of as we choose our words.

Over the week and a half since that panel discussion, Twitter and other social media platforms have been aflame with the so-called #GamerGate controversy and other instances of high profile tech women being targeted in vile threats of rape and murder. Yesterday, feminist media critic, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a university appearance following a mass shooting threat.  Last week, one of my favourite contributors to the tech and edtech communities, Kathy Sierra, closed down her Twitter account due to a similarly horrifying and long-running saga of online abuse.

This is obviously very extreme behaviour and does not reflect the day-to-day experience of women in tech. However, until we address this culture, this field will be not a place where girls and women can be fully themselves, where they can transcend their perceived gender limitations and just go make great technology.

CoderDojo is doing some wonderful work to address this at an early stage in the pipeline of young talent - and the work being done gives me great hope.  Many dojos enjoy very equal gender balances and the girls and boys attending are truly seeing tech in a way that empowers all. However, some dojos will at times see a fall-off in the numbers of girls attending.  

So, at DojoCon, it was really wonderful to hear about @CoderDojoGirls which is a specific intervention model for when this happens. Sarah Doran, one of the founders of @CoderDojoGirls and former participants, now mainstream Dojo mentors, Catrina Carrigan and Vanessa Green spoke enthusiastically about their experiences in this situation.  They are keen to connect with other dojos who want to try this approach and they share their experiences very openly and generously. 

Roisin Markham talked about making space for other forms of diversity in our Dojos.  This is another challenge that may best be addressed by just talking about it initially.  By identifying this as an area for improvement, we can take the very first steps in identifying positive steps forward.  There will be no 'one size fits all' initiatives here - each community will need to address this in the optimum way for that community.

Catherine Cronin did a wonderful job of moderating this panel and weaving together our various voices and perspectives.  I'm only sorry that as the moderator, she was limited in how much she could add directly to the discussion.  We have much to learn from her, so I hope we will hear her voice more clearly on this issue next time. 

Following DojoCon, I had an opportunity last week to speak with the leadership in the IT organisation that I work with and we talked about some of these points.  The upshot of that conversation is that I've been asked to oversee the production of a short video - designed to attract new and more diverse people into our IT teams.  I am finding that men do understand the difficulties here and when we talk to them about the issues in an honest way, they are keen to help address the situation.  So, I would encourage others to speak up when opportunities to do so present themselves.

Thank you again to everyone who made DojoCon a truly wonderful event and who are still continuing these discussions that we started in Sligo a week and a half ago.  I look forward to seeing where they take us.


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