WANTED: Rosie the Programmer

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Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter, source from Flickr Commons

It’s a pretty uniform feeling among geeks with daughters: We want to raise strong, smart, independent girls who can stand above stereotypes.

So when I’m faced with marketing geared toward girls, I feel a mixture of emotions. Part of me is excited to see something cute and girly, and part of me is outraged at the stereotypes. Sometimes I feel feminists need to stand down so we can allow a little pink into our lives, and sometimes I am that feminist.

When I see Computer Science being marketed towards girls, I am especially torn. Being the only female programmer on my team (over and over, across my academic and professional career), I wouldn’t mind seeing more women in Computer Science. I chose this field accepting the men-to-women ratio as it was and it doesn’t bother me in the least, but a little variety couldn’t hurt either. Go CS girls, go!

On the flip side, there’s a fine line between encouraging females into Computer Science and making girls feel they are a demographic that needs special handling and treatment. Sometimes I just want to yell: Look at me, I’m a girl and I can read boy posters just fine! Oh, this computer is not pink and yet I will touch it! I appreciate the extra help and the special attention, but I can do computing and I can do it myself, thankyouverymuch.

The topic came up again recently upon finding the new-to-me DotDiva.org website. Immediately I thought: “Girls in CS, yay! Oh wait, should I feel insulted?” There’s always that moment of doubt whether I’m being supported or targeted. In the last week I’ve been visiting the website often, just trying to make up my mind: How can we help more girls choose Computer Science? I took a convoluted path just to finally end up in CS, what would have convinced me as a teen to consider CS without the twisted path of self-discovery? Would finding resources like Dot Diva have helped me?

WBGH (a leading producer of educational media) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) joined forces in 2008 to produce NIC, the New Image for Computing initiative. NIC’s original goal was to lure teens from the most underrepresented groups in Computer Science, namely African American and Hispanic teens, by revamping the image of computing. After a market research, they were surprised to find that the interest in Computer Science within the African American and Hispanic boys was fairly high despite their low attendance in the field, meanwhile girls across all races showed the lowest level of interest.

DotDiva market research data on interest in CS, by gender and race
Dot Diva market research data on interest in CS, by gender and race

From such findings, NIC changed their goal to focus on girls only and Dot Diva was born. This week I got the chance to chat with Julie Benyo, who was the principle investigator at the time the initiative was first funded, and she was willing to answer a few of my questions for me:

From the findings of the market research, how did you decide what content would be provided on DotDiva.org?

What we heard from girls during our market research (and in our experience with Dot Diva’s older sister project, Engineer Your Life), was that if they thought of computing at all, it was within the context of sitting alone in a dark room writing code all day. When we asked them what they wanted in a career, they said they wanted to work collaboratively with other people, be creative, and do something meaningful. Therefore, on the web site, that’s the side of computing we wanted to show. In fact, when we spoke with young women in the field, they all told us that those were exactly the characteristics that attracted them to their jobs, so it was easy to feature them and their work. Also, we know that high schoolers are aspirational, but they don’t aspire to be 50 year old women, so we chose women much closer in age to the girls themselves. I don’t believe that any of the women featured on the site was over the age of 30 at the time we worked with them.

Has there been other tactics developed in addition to the Dot Diva website?

On the Web site, there’s a parents and educators section that’s got lots of downloadable resources, including an annotated PPT presentation that educators can use in presentations to girls, a databank of free images folks can use to spruce-up their own recruiting efforts, and other materials.

In addition to the Web site, we have other free material — a poster, a brochure for girls, and a brochure (in 3 languages) for parents.

Has the NIC initiative considered the effects of popular media (namely TV shows) on career choices in teens? Is that why Dot Diva included a webisode?

We certainly know that TV and other media are important to girls, but we didn’t have enough funding for TV, and with the growing popularity of online media, we decided to do a webisode. We originally wanted this to be a 10-part series, and we have the outline for all 10, but we’ve been unsuccessful in securing funding for more episodes, so…

We scripted the initial webisode as an introduction to the entire series. So, while the one that’s available may seem shallow in terms of its focus on computing, we wanted to introduce the characters and get folks to “know” them before we went too much farther into what it means to be into computing. Also, we wanted the 2 main women characters to be polar opposites in terms of personalities in order to show that there’s no one TYPE that goes into computing.

Is there current or future work being made to add more content to the Dot Diva website?

The group at ‘GBH continues to seek funding to support and grow the initiative in the future, but it’s been a slow slog.

There is a grant pending with the National Science Foundation, but that’s all that’s going on at the moment. Unfortunately, everyone associated with the project is supported on grants, so unless there’s money, no one is spending any time on the project.

Those of us who “used” to work on it still occasionally post to the Dot Diva Facebook page, but this is because we truly believe in the initiative and can’t let it go, even though we’re no longer paid or officially associated with the site or WGBH.

It is nice to see people working with such dedication toward helping kids find their path. Sadly, funding is a recurring problem for well-meaning initiatives and we’ll have to continue to rely on Hollywood to break the computing stereotypes. While we’re not proud to admit the pull that TV has towards our life choices, the impact is undeniable. For example, physics experienced a boom in interest partly due to the popular show Big Bang Theory.

Spinning science in a positive light on TV to boost STEM attendance is no new concept. In 2005, Pentagon research grants totaling nearly $25,000 were used to train scientists on screenplay writing. The goal was to encourage more Americans teens to major in STEM fields to avoid an imminent crisis in scientific jobs vacancies for defense laboratories, many of which require citizenship or permanent residency.

I am not immune to the Hollywood effect, I nearly abandoned my career in programming to apply to med school because of Grey’s Anatomy. Yes, you’re allowed to laugh at me for that one. My point is, if we hope to see more girls major in Computer Science, we need a TV show with a female programmer who can kick butt and take names.

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10 thoughts on “WANTED: Rosie the Programmer

  1. As a woman in the computer industry I think the way women are treated in the industry needs to change also. I have repeatedly dealt with sexism and blatant negative comments about women and being a parent. I know a lot of this has to do wit where I live, but until this attitude changes women will still flush out in frustration.

    1. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that stuff, Erica. I have to admit I never once felt sexism against me. I can only hope that your experience is more rare than mine.

      In any case, I think the only way to make sexism go away is by bringing in more women who can prove they belong in CS. Numbers speak volume.

  2. I really find surprising Ariane that you have been the only female developer along your career track. I work in back office IT for a Fortune 20 Wall St. firm and we have female developers in many areas, including front office. Many are in high level positions(ED-MD) and have been with the firm for 10 years and more.
    I’ve always had female co-workers in support and dev during my IT career and in my experience it was always a positive, never saw any negative commentary or actions against them.
    I have a 3 yr old girl now and she is taking after her techie daddy:) Hopefully she becomes the Mark Zuckerberg of her generation.

    1. I wouldn’t say I’ve never worked with a female progammer, but there has been few enough. Often times when I work with another woman on a project, she is a QA person or a client support person. I know my company has other female programmers, I guess we get spread out to various project!

  3. I like the idea of a clear career path for girls to go into CS, but have to admit – my professional path was pretty curvy and so was that of other women I know. In my case, I feel like I am in the right spot as a result of the journey.

    It seems like Hollywood could easily change out certain roles to be more inclusive. there are a few mainstream shows we watch regularly that have techie girls (although they are not programmers). Nikita (USA) and Hawaii 5-0 (CBS) are two that we watch with strong techie females in them.

    I have 2 daughters and neither one is interested in a techie field. Geeks in other ways, of course, but not in their career choices (yet). We will have to see what path their journey takes.

    BTW – Pink is just a color – there is nothing wrong with letting pink into our lives. 😉


    1. Bones (Fox) has Angela Montenegro, a forensic artist and computer programmer. Angela is arguably…how do I put this…the most traditionally “cool” female character on the show. She’s the cute, girly, extroverted one who’s always there to help out her socially challenged BFF.

    2. I have never watched Nikita and Hawaii 5-0, maybe I would gain a new perspective from those shows!

      It’s true Angela is a pretty good fit in terms of a non-stereotyped (to an extreme) strong techie woman, although I’ve always had a problem accepting her role. The girl is savant-level good at too many things! One second she’s a talented artist, one second she’s recovering stuff on a destroyed hard drive, one second she writes computer programs… WHO ARE YOU, ANGELA?! 😛

  4. I’ve been a programmer for 8 years at my company which has a large IT department. While there are several women in IT, there do seem to be few female programmers. I’ve never really had to deal with sexism on the job, but can see how easily it could happen. Most projects I’m the only female involved or the only female IT member involved. I think part of the issue is the image of programmers. I love the IT Crowd, but they don’t exactly make us look “cool.” I’m afraid that a TV show with a female programmer would end up being socially awkward to the point of ridiculous. I like the Big Bang Theory, but their female nerdy or geeky characters seem far from normal. Is that really going to help draw girls to computer science? I do like Angela on Bones and think she is a great example of how “cool” we can be. I would like to see another great female programmer on TV besides Willow or Angela.

  5. While I’m not programmer myself, I think it’s a great profession. My daughter just turned 11, and she loves two things: animals, and computer games that feature animals (Webkins, Club Penguin, a number of games on GirlsGoGames).

    Hoping to encourage her, I just got her some game designer software, and I’m hoping to work with her on using her creativity to come up with game ideas on her own.

    What other things could I do to help her get more interested in taking her love of computer games to the next level?

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