Women in Tech Starts in Infancy - Here's How my Daddy Helped

I wrote in a previous article about how I tend not to notice immediately that, somewhere like, for example, a tech conference has, say, 300 men and six women in it, because I innately think of people as people, and not divide them by gender or race or age or whatever. And I was thinking about why this is, and I realised I have my father to thank for a hell of a lot.

I am the only child of a product-of-her-time motherly mother, and a quite extraordinary eccentric polymath father who neither notices nor cares about social conventions like gender or mainstream culture. Daddy is into all sorts of cool stuff. He loves engineering, computer science, zoology, ecology, art, history (including and especially industrial history), science of all kinds, dinosaurs, fossils, ... Oh all kinds of cool. When I was a little girl he bought a BBC B and we both learnt to program it in BASIC. And he read me some great stories when I was little too, so let's include literature.

Here let me mention the first books I recall him reading me, which were Arthur Ransome's glorious "Swallows and Amazons" series. This is relevant, because Ransome was way ahead of his time in terms of gender. "Swallows and Amazons" was published back in 1929, yet it - and the rest of the series - contain the most unstereotyped characters you could hope for. There are more girls than boys, they all do the same exciting, adventurous stuff, the dominant character is a girl, girls often take the lead as they work together as equal teams and no-one ever suggests that a particular role or activity is unsuitable for a girl (or a boy). Compare this to Enid Blyton, who was all "you girls stay and look after the camp while we boys go and have a brave and exciting adventure". Ransome is just awesome. Go and read them, especially if you like sailing. Or pirates.

And I hold my father responsible for most of the toys I played with. My mother tried to interest me in dolls, but it didn't work. I preferred train sets, Lego, toy tractors of all sizes, old Tonka Toy vehicles - including a really cool crane and some trucks - of daddy's, a model farm that he built for me, intelligent games, many many books and art materials. With this kind of material culture it's no wonder that it didn't occur to me to feel limited or shaped by my gender.

I doubt my father would say he's a feminist. He isn't political at all, and I've never heard him talk about isms of any kind. But nor does he judge or prejudge people on the basis of anything. I notice though that he does seem to note and be pleased when a woman makes a particular achievement, breaks a glass ceiling, say being the first female something-or-other. And likewise with me, he gave me no indication ever that I should or should not aspire to anything on account of my gender. He's always been terrifically proud of my achievements and interested in my endeavours, and he never seems to think anything is beyond me if I make the effort.

So, that's the early moulding of me - it hasn't stopped the world messing with my head since then, but it's been some defence against that -, and I'm glad of it, but I'm not letting it blind me to the real and serious prejudice that women face when dealing with a lot of people who aren't my Daddy. However, I think we have a lot to learn from it about how to bring up new generations, especially how to increase inclusivity particularly in STEM subjects and industries. And I've been reading some articles just recently in the UK national press and psychology journals that add academic weight to my anecdotal evidence.

In this article Christia Spears Brown, Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Kentucky, shows how even the most innocent-seeming (in this case merely referring to boys and girls separately) gender stereotyping of small children narrows their sense of their own potential. And in this sequel she shows how easily meaningless prejudices and biases can be created in children and proves that gender stereotypes have nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with an innate tendency to segregate according to artificially created differences. In short, children develop "feminine" and "masculine" traits, preferences, aspirations only because adults give them the message that they should, that they're different, that their biology determines them.

And if you don't think that any of that matters, you ought to think about stereotype threat. This is where a stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: a person fears their performance will be used to justify a stereotype about their group, and, as a result, underperforms. There is an interesting article about stereotype threat in school-age chess in the March 2014 edition of The Psychologist journal, entitled "Queens under threat from Kings". It's pretty widely, if erroneously, believed that males are innately better at chess than females. And with only one female Grand Master, Judit Polgar, in the world at present, there's little in the way of role model encouragement for women and girl chess players. This research looked at under-12 girl chess players. They were all rated for ability, and then their performance as a % of their ability was observed when playing against boys and girls. Against boys, they played markedly below their ability. The fear of being judged according to the prevailing gender stereotype actually inhibited their game, overriding their actual talent and ability.

So it really does matter what we tell our little children, about themselves, their potential and their abilities. It really does harm the girls when we steer them away from technology, science and maths and towards dolls, princesses, sparkles and pink. And it harms the boys when we discourage them from nurturing, playing gently, playing to learn social skills, or engaging with their emotions.

There's more to this than how gendering of toys affects girls' initial uptake of STEM careers. Once a woman is established in a career, with ambition and high aspirations for promotion and leadership, her ability to fulfil those aspirations mid-to-long-term is likely to be heavily influenced by how willing her partner is to take a 50% share in domestic and child-rearing duties. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how that probability is damaged by giving our little girls dolls, toy cookers, toy cleaning equipment, and shaming our little boys into avoiding these kinds of toys, "because they are toys for girls".

This week in the UK, the Internet, newspapers, TV and radio have been fizzing with debate about how we stereotype our children, sparked by a big campaign from the excellent @LetToysBeToys. They've had marked success in persuading toy retailers in the UK to stop labelling their toys as 'for girls' and 'for boys', and to stop pushing the domestic, pink, princessy stuff towards girls, and the construction, space ships, trains and such towards boys. Now they've turned their attention to children's book publishers, in an attempt to get rid of fatuously gendered books called things like "Adventure stories for boys" or "Colouring book for girls". Or, as Katy Guest, the Independent on Sunday's Literary Editor put it, "Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses …and... Great Big Book of Snot for Boys". And they're getting a lot of support, not just form literary editors, but high-profile authors, the main high-street book retailer Waterstones, and leading publishers including Usborne.

I'm delighted by their success. I've know this is a big problem for a long time, but until now it's been hard to find people who take it seriously. Too many parents - even intelligent ones who should know better - seem to like their "little pink princess" or their "rough tough little man", and they can't or won't see the harm they are doing. And the harm is this: too few women in tech and other STEM careers, too few women in leadership, in chess, in government. Too many women in low paid, dead end "feminine" jobs, in careers that fall by the wayside when children arrive, because they pay less than the childcare will cost and childrearing is still considered the responsibility of mothers, not parents. Too many women who are afraid to promote themselves, who lack the confidence to assert themselves, to push for what they deserve, to stand up to bullies, because of that early conditioning to be nice, be likeable, be pretty. And of course, too many men and male-designed cultures with a sense of entitlement to all the power and the best roles, just because they are male. Macho brogrammer cultures that alienate women because both the men and the women were brought up to see the other as different, alien, and are thus unable to build and participate in cultures where people are just people and there is room for them all. And too many unhappy, alienated, messed-up men who can't sustain relationships, understand themselves or anyone else, because they were brought up to be tough and repress their emotions. It messes us all up. Let's make it stop

Show Comments