This post is a leftover from last year… Better late than never!
The subject of women and technology has been a platform for much pontificating lately. But at a recent Facebook hackathon, hosted together with the Silicon Valley chapter of Girls in Tech, I captured the words and experiences of the people this debate concerns most: the women technologists, themselves.
The Girls in Tech/Facebook Developer Garage was the first hacker event to be held at Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters. This type of overnight code-fest generally draws a largely male crowd of developers. However, this particular event had a relatively large female contingent, likely because of the Girls in Tech involvement.
At this event, I talked to Facebook marketing executive Randi Zuckerberg; Jocelyn Goldfein, the company’s new Director of Engineering; and Dhana Pawar, who founded the Silicon Valley chapter of Girls in Tech. Each woman has forged a career in this male-dominated field, and each one shared insights from personal experience and knowledge of the industry.
What I learned in these conversations gives me cause for optimism. Although it’s true that fewer women are choosing developer/engineer education and career paths now than were 20 years ago, these voices calling more attention to women in tech — and calling more women to learn about and participate in tech — could be stimulating renewed female interest and participation in the field. This goes for both adult women looking to broaden their skill sets and young women and girls still deciding what direction their careers will take.
I also heard women talking a lot about female roles within the ranks of an engineering department. My interview subjects explored anecdotal evidence and personal experience around the phenomenon of female engineering managers. Apparently, they see more women in leadership and product/project management roles within an engineering team, whereas the individual contributors who write the bulk of an application’s code tend to be male. The reasons for this are still a bit of a mystery, but women’s learned and socially sanctioned focus on communication and mentorship may have something to do with it, my sources said.
Another question I explored during my time at Facebook’s Developer Garage was whether grown women are interested in recareering and focusing on pure technology. In many cases, the answer was a resounding yes. While many women who are interested in building web-related technologies are not necessarily engineers themselves, I saw and heard about many women choosing to learn new skills and cross into the not-so-pink-collar world of application development.
Women are getting their feet wet, coding-wise, by taking night or online classes, by reading books, by volunteering at hackathons and in many other ways. As Goldfein pointed out in our conversation that day, “late blooming” engineers aren’t necessarily inferior engineers. In fact, she speculated that a reasonably intelligent woman could transform herself into a competent engineer within three years’ time. If more interested adult women were encouraged to learn programming languages, the gender disparity in software engineering could be corrected rather quickly.
Finally, one question I asked all three women was how technologists can encourage young women and girls who are interested in the Internet, not simply as a means to an end but as a subject of work and study. They told me that the younger generation of would-be female developers needs to know that programming isn’t necessarily “geeky,” but it is an amazing way to reach millions of people and possibly impact the world.
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