Back in April we created a Hacking the Gender Gap workshop at the Women in Tech Summit. By “gender gap” we mean the different levels of men and women in science and tech fields. For the workshop, we start by sharing some research on the gender gap including when it arises age-wise, why it arises, and what we can do about it. It can be hard to apply abstract research findings to a problem experienced in day-to-day life, so the core of our workshop involves asking participants for their own positive and negative experiences in technology. We then post the experiences on a timeline to see what patterns we can identify, to come up with practical solutions to the problem from our own experiences.
Since that first session, we’ve taken the activity to AdaCamp, HOPE 9, and did a special session at HacDC. AdaCamp is a conference held by the Ada Initiative which took place in Washington DC on July 10 & 11. HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) is a large bi-annual hacker conference that was held on July 13, 14 & 15. The conferences drew very different audiences, which yielded interesting results. Our trip to HacDC took place in September, and we gave the presentation to a crowd that had standing room only, with a lot of women who had never been to their space before. In each case, a lively discussion from many participants followed our presentation.
The AdaCamp workshop had a few themes that were very similar to those we saw at our first session at the Women in Tech Summit in Philly. You can see photos of the timeline and each story on our flickr here. A common theme among the negative stories was a teacher or other authority figure directly discouraging a girl or woman from pursuing her interests in technology, science or math. Interestingly, there was a gap of negative stories on our timeline in the ages of 10-20, which is the age when girls “lose interest” in these subjects, according to academic research. We wondered if girls who experienced discouragement or other roadblocks at that age simply didn’t pursue further opportunities in technology, which would prevent them from attending a “women in tech” conference or event such as AdaCamp. A common theme among the positive stories was the experience of working closely with a parent or mentor on a tech activity, which boosted confidence.
The HOPE conference (pictured above) was the first time we did the activity with a group of men and women, which made for a rich collection of stories and a compelling discussion. Photos of the stories from the participants are here. In the workshop, after we explained the story portion, a few men sat for several minutes looking a little puzzled, and then one of them raised his hand and said, “So, what do you mean by a ‘negative experience’… I’m having trouble thinking of one.” This is something we had never heard from female participants, which we considered valuable data. A few of these men explained that their lives had been so intertwined with technology as long as they could remember that setbacks or roadblocks they experienced were taken to be part of their natural learning curve. It was assumed by their mentors that they would overcome roadblocks eventually, and they did. Subsequent discussion touched on the fact that most negative experiences involved other people in the tech field, not the technology itself, which both men and women had experienced.
It was interesting and validating to learn that for many men, their interest in tech was fostered by positive experiences with a mentor AND they sometimes experience frustrating assumptions by the opposite sex. It shouldn’t be a surprise that men don’t like the assumption that they can help any woman who has computer problems, just as women don’t like questions about why they are interested in technology or comments like “You sure don’t look like a programmer!”
After the workshop we displayed the timeline and post-its in HOPE’s hackerspace village, near the Hacktory’s table, and invited more people to share their experiences. Our growing collection of stories continues to shed light on what brings people into technology fields and what drives them away. We have continued to get a lot of encouragement and interest in the activity, and are working with some volunteers to translate the timeline and stories we have collected into a digital format. If you would like updates on this project, please join our newsletter mailing list (see the side bar —–>).