On How Not To Target Girl Geeks

(First, let me say this post contains opinion, stereotyping and sweeping generalisations.  But that’s sort of the point.  Also I don’t pretend for one moment to speak for all girl programmers, I can only speak for myself)

When I first started this blog, I wanted to just post “proper” technical information.  I wanted to prove that there are girls out there doing “real” programming.

I specifically didn’t want to talk about my gender.  I wanted to prove by silence that gender is incidental to what I do.

But, it doesn’t really work that way, does it?

Firstly because one of the first things I get asked by guys when I meet them in this industry is “why aren’t there more girl programmers?” (that’s after they ask “do you work in HR?” followed by “are you a real programmer?” - I’m not joking, this happened this week).

And secondly because I’m pretty passionate about the gender issue.  To be specific: I’m passionate about diversity.  It’s just that I’m more qualified to bang on about gender rather than something like race, sexuality, age etc.

What’s started you off again this time?
The London Java Community got me thinking by asking “Is there anything we can do to attract more girls to the events?”

The thing is, the reason people (boys) keep asking this question is because they want more girls in the industry / at events.  They want them to feel involved and included.  I’ve said it before, but I mean it - I’ve never come across malicious sexism at work.  Yes there is subconscious sexism.  But the boys want the girls to come and play.  Why wouldn’t they?  How many boys really want to work in a team which has 12 developers and only one is a girl?

But think about it: who is the worst person to ask why girls don’t like being developers?

Yep.  A girl developer.

Because we love it.  We’re here because we like programming, we like our jobs, we’re good at it.  We weren’t stopped by sexism (assumed or real), by boys clubs, by not having female role models, by… well, any of the myriad of reasons posited as to why girls don’t become programmers.

I have no idea why a girl wouldn’t want to be a programmer.  It’s brilliant!  It’s problem-solving, logical and creative, you’re usually surrounded by intelligent people who are striving toward the same goal as you, and you get to meet a lot of boys :-)

So, back to the question at hand: how do we appeal to girls, as a user group and ultimately as an industry?

There are lots and lots of ideas kicking around this area, and I’m going to start by ranting about the things I think we shouldn’t be doing.  This, of course, is totally my opinion so helpings of salt might be required.

No Pink
I get so angry about this!!  As if the pinkification of our little girls wasn’t bad enough, “people” (I have no idea who) think that they can inflict this upon grown-ups too!

Why, WHY, would a website that is aimed at professional technical women be branded in childish hues of the hated colour?  I didn’t even click on a single link, I’m not sure what service it’s supposed to provide, because I was so disgusted by the colour palate I closed the browser.

In particular, if your target demographic is the somewhat unusual creature the girl-geek, or at least the lady technologist, what makes you think that ultra-feminine colour is going to appeal to us?  Apparently “The November 2009 Times/Lady Geek Female Appeal Study showed that only 9% of women want technology to be feminine, let alone pink.”

What do you think, that your average (female) maths graduate is going to decide Computing Is For Me Because It’s Pink?  Really?

I worry about this: are these sites (phones/consoles/cars) designed by men, and that’s what they think women like?  Or were they designed by women who really believe that’s what ALL women like?

Please.  Stop it.  Now.  It’s embarrassing.

Be careful about your role models
Take the gadget show, for example.  I don’t actually watch it, I’ll be honest, because I really don’t need someone tempting me to spend money on things I don’t require.  But as an example of this point it’s perfect - just the picture at the top of the page says it all to me: two reasonably attractive women (I know not everyone floats your boat but they’re not ugly), token black guy and two white guys who certainly don’t float my boat.  If only one of them was gay, their diversity tick sheet would be perfect.

I am not for one second suggesting any of these guys don’t know their stuff.  That is not the point at all.  I just wonder - if one of the women looked like someone’s mum, would they have got the job?  The subconscious message here is that yes, it’s totally fine to be a girl and a geek.  But you still have to look good too.

And there’s another message there - if you’re a guy and you’re into technology, you don’t have to be hot. In fact, the role models we see are definitely on the Not Hot end of the scale.  Bill Gates anyone?

So girls get a double-whammy - I have to know what I’m talking about and look good (whilst also trying to prove that girls who look good have brains); and there are no hot guys in the industry.

Hmm, no thanks, I think I’ll get a job in marketing.

Don’t assume all women are the same
In fact don’t assume anything about the girls you want to attract.  Actually, assume they’re people.  Like you.  And geeks.  Like you.

For example.  I actually do like shoes and clothes.  But plenty of my fellow girl-geeks are about as bothered about that stuff as their male counter-parts.  So trying to appeal to girls with iPhone apps that help you pick you next pair of Jimmy Choos might not be the approach you want to take.  You’ll attract a subset of women, sure, but they might not be the ones you want.

Imagine if you wanted to get more guys into programming, and you decided to do it by using football as the hook.  Yes, you’d get certain guys interested. But I’ve met more guys who are utterly disinterested in football in IT than I’ve met girls who dislike it.

We’re not all the same.  We’re interested in all sorts of different stuff.

Be very very careful about women-only events
My personal feelings are that there should be no need for all-girl conferences or all-girl line-ups.  To me, it implies that girls want something different to boys, and that girls only listen to other females.

I think there are places for these sorts of things, especially if you’re aiming it at girls who might be more uncomfortable with guys around (e.g. some sort of mentoring).  So I’m not going to say flat-out they’re wrong.

It’s just I think it’s not the right angle to attack the problem.  And you’re segregating based on one dimension only, but as I said we’re all different and we all have different problems.  The issues a non-white (am I allowed to say that?) lady might face could be different to those a middle class white girl like me has to deal with.  And do you want all-black conferences, and all-gay conferences, and so on and so forth?  Why are we special?  Why are we allowed to exclude the boys?  It’s sexist.

Also, as a girl-geek, I get a bit freaked out when I’m surrounded by women, even if they’re all geeks like me.  I’m much more comfortable talking to a guy, they tend not to try to read between the lines of everything you say or wonder if you’re bitching about them behing their back </gross generalisation>.

Diversity is about being inclusive, not exclusive.

In Conclusion
Lots of the girl-geek, women-in-IT movement often appears to me as if women are “special” and need different treatment. This is not helping our cause at all. It causes resentment amongst our male peers and it puts off women who don’t define themselves by their gender - people like the girls who are already in our industry. We like technology, we love programming, and we’re good at our jobs.


So.  I don’t know why there aren’t more girls in programming.  And I don’t have the answers as to what will tempt them in.

But, just for me, next time you’re creating an advert or a website or something aimed at geek-girls, can we have more hot guys please?