I just read an article tweeted by the awesome Julia Hughan. The article is about a discussion at SXSW led by All Things Digital's Kara Swisher on why there aren't more women in tech and in particular in leadership roles / starting their own companies.
"Fewer women with math backgrounds to take lead technical roles." And it's because they don't feel awesome.
Why don't young girls feel awesome?
Here's why I never felt awesome enough to pursue maths, science or engineering despite being awesomely capable to do so.
My love of computers and mathematics started when I was informally accelerated in primary school by an amazing teacher I had in years one to three who would just give me maths problems from the years above me, until I ran out and he'd send me to the library to do my own thing. There I found books on problem solving, and when I'd enter maths competitions I would completely blitz it.
This same teacher let me run crazy on Microbees and build my own games with the green text on the black screen, while everyone else played Raft Away River (OK, I freaking loved that game too, but BUILDING YOUR OWN was awesome).
My next maths teacher / mentor person started an extracurricular maths class. My primary school was a bit of a guinea pig school and we got to take time out of class to extend ourselves in the things we were passionate about. I did maths enrichment group and we would sit around and discuss maths problems and do brain challenges. This added a social element to maths that I really enjoyed. Most of these kids then moved to other schools, and particularly to the local school that opened a class for bright kids. But I sure as shit wasn't leaving my friends!
All my primary school teachers left me to my own devices to pursue my analytical interests. When I returned to class, I'd join the others in P.E., Italian, English and everything else. But to be good at maths was to be in solitude - or elitist and removed from friends.
In high school I sat an IQ test and got accelerated in mathematics and in science. It was social suicide, but luckily I fell in with some amazing women in the year above me and always sat at the back of the class which eventually leant me to (almost) social acceptance across both grades.
I was the first girl computer programmer at my high school to enter into competition. My teacher took pride in that, and he held me up as a role model to other women for years after (I know this because my younger cousin who went through school after me made a point of letting me know).
However, I didn't take pride in it. I did two extracurricular activities during my lunchtimes: choir and programming. If I missed programming I would tell them I was at choir (and I usually was), but if I missed choir I would NEVER tell them I was learning to code. It was my secret shame - hanging out with the most beautifully intelligent (yet socially inept) kids of the school did not bode well on my social resume.
I have never in my life told people about these things and how they shaped me. Not with pride anyway. I was SO embarrassed to be good at maths and science - it was painful to be good at something, love it, but to then be punished for it in the schoolyard. I'm a social butterfly, dammit!
Some of the things I think need to be considered about these early experiences and how they translated to me NOT pursuing maths / science / engineering / technical life:
1. I had male teachers in all my maths classes, and female teachers in all my english classes.
2. I had a male teacher give me a near-fail (pass minus I think it was called) when I built my first HTML site. He said I didn't take the project seriously, and I said I wanted to be creative about it because it wasn't challenging and technically I did nothing wrong - the code was perfect. If you didn't want it fluro pink and with unicorns, then you should have said so. These days I would say "Write a better brief, dude."
3. My English classes were creative: my maths classes were often silent. People talking at me, rather than nutting things out with the person next to me, drove me crazy in my maths classes. I got kicked out all the time! (In year 12, I ended up kicking myself out for two weeks and flew through the textbook. Then, when we had a substitute teacher who was not meant to teach maths, I offered to teach the class for him. I ran discussion groups where we would try to explain to each other what things meant. People would connect with others who thought in the same way as them, and the teacher got a free ride by letting us go for it. Win freaking win if you ask me. P.S. By this point I'd dropped out of accelerated maths and was doing "Maths in the beergarden" in my own cohort - but that's another story).
4. You could be good at maths or English, but not both. Timetabling at our school always directed you to pick one over the other - because why should you be good at both? Just pick one thing and specialise. In Year 8 one of my teachers observed "Sarah, most people's paths are a pyramid. They start with a broad range of interests and slowly narrow down to what they want to be. Your pyramid? It's inverted." God bless him he's still right.
So: after so much discouragement, social outcasting and lack of appeal to my introverted self, my pre-tertiary education beat the passion out my left brain entirely.
What am I supposed to do about that? I still love all those things but cringe at learning and exploring because the transfer of knowledge doesn't appeal to my senses and now-very-exercised- right brain enthusiasm.
Socially, the path to becoming a female tech pioneer from here on out could be a struggle for me personally. But then again women can do anything. So: bring it the fuck on, I say.