Women in Tech: Taking on the Girl Geek Stereotype

SAN FRANCISCO (07/12/2000) - I did not want to write this article. For the 20 or so years that I've been in the technology field, I have carefully avoided being associated with women's issues. My feeling is this: the fact that I am female and working in technology should be a nonissue. I don't want to make it an issue by highlighting the fact that I am female.

Oh, that doesn't mean that I have a problem with being female, or even feminine -- just that it has nothing to do with my work. I've had to deal with my share of stupidity as well. "Wait till they hear back at the office that a little girl was tracing power cables under the floor by herself!" At 20 years old, I was hardly a "little girl."

But I kept my mouth shut. Just deal with it and ignore the jerks -- that was my policy. Sexist attitudes are the result of ignorance and inexperience. I figured the best way to deal with it was to just prove by my actions that I was capable. I did not look for sexist attitudes, or take offense at semantics.

Over time, my confidence grew with the length of my resume. I'm not so defensive about proving myself and can occasionally risk speaking out on real issues. When the Hacker News Network published an article on Scene Whores, I asked Space Rogue, editor of HNN, to let me write a rebuttal. If I was trying to avoid the feminazi label, why write this? Mostly because if I didn't, someone else would -- possibly in a way that would make it a female versus male issue, something I preferred to avoid.

I got hundreds of emails in response to that article, mostly positive. True, there were a few jerks, as well as people who saw me as the next Gloria Steinem. I decided to avoid the topic in future articles.

So why write about it now? Well, I've had three people this week alone comment about my gender in relation to my work. It's a bit startling when people expect my comments about my experiences in the industry to somehow make me a Spokesperson for Women. Far from it: my opinions and experiences are unique to me, and I can't claim to speak for others. I want no special consideration for being female one way or the other.

The current flurry of inquiries started with an article on the ABC News Website about female hackers. Now, maybe New York is different from the rest of the world, but I see enough women in the technical field that it's become unremarkable. Oh, that's right, we're talking about female hackers; that's much sexier sounding than women in technology.

The article promised a Part 2, and I didn't have high hopes for it. It turned out to be better, though Ms. Segan still focused on the hacker scene and not real hackers. I decided to send her mail to discuss the issue and perhaps broaden her perspective -- my little contribution for women in the industry.

Ms. Segan decided to post responses to her article without identifying respondents.

None of my comments made it since I did not want to hide behind anonymity. I actually wanted to go on the record. I don't know why this was a problem.

Shouldn't women be encouraged to speak up?

Here's a better article that points out that the scarcity of women in the technical field is the fault of society, not the industry. Amen.

I see the evidence in my six-year-old daughter already. Little girls are supposed to be pretty, not smart. After all, Barbie says, "Math is hard!"

It takes a while for society to change, but it will. I see it in my own household as my daughter is praised for her high math scores and encouraged to use the computer (a Unix box for mail, of course). But will this be enough to counteract the Britney Spears image? Tune in six years from now...

We've come a long way, baby. We've got a long way to go.

Carole Fennelly is a partner in Wizard's Keys Corp., a company specializing in computer security consulting. She has been a Unix system administrator for almost 20 years on various platforms, and provides security consultation to several financial institutions in the New York City area.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about ABC NetworksFinancial InstitutionsWizard's Keys

Show Comments