WANTED: Rosie the Programmer

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.

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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.

Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found writing about STEM travel at Geekling's Guide to the Galaxy.