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Dear Paul Graham, here’s how to fix the women in tech problem

I am on the west coast and just woke up to all of this of the brouhaha around Paul Graham.

I was considering calming down before I published a blog post, but really, what is the fun in that?

Dear Paul Graham, Fred Wilson & anyone else who would like to read on:

I know how to solve the women in tech problem and the pipeline problem in one fell swoop. You interested?

Would you like to know how you are doing it wrong? And why what you are currently doing to fix the problem is actually reinforcing the issue and feeding into a vicious cycle that will only maintain the current gender ratios?

The biggest problem with Paul Graham’s statements is the UNILATERAL focus on 13 year olds and the TOTAL dismissal of all other women and their technical abilities.

This is A) absurd, B) horribly demotivating for women and girls of all ages (if you haven’t started by 13 you will NEVER do anything of value) and C) most importantly, a scourge that if not addressed will be sure to wreak havoc on generations of women and girls to come.

Women, all women, need to be encouraged to learn to code, learn about technology, start startups, etc. Study after study has established that the biggest factor in whether or not women enter CS programs or think they can be technologists is the presence of women role models and teachers to show them that is possible. (You can read more about it here, hat tip Jane Margolis.)

Let me repeat this for effect. The biggest factor in whether women go into technology is whether they have someone who they can relate to and look up to.

In other words, as awesome as Goldie Blox and Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code and Hopscotch are (and they are F*CKING AWESOME don’t let anyone think I am saying that they aren’t), if we don’t also encourage more adult women to learn about technology and do cool things with technology, this problem will not be solved.

And ironically, this is one of the biggest issues facing the movement to bring CS education to every kid in America. There simply aren’t enough k-12 teachers knowledgeable enough to teach this stuff.

If we take Paul Graham at his premise that if you are over the age of 13 you are too old to start then well, let’s forget about bringing CS to the next generation of k-12 students and while I am at it, let me close my computer, fire Emily our Skillcrush lead developer, and darn it, shut down Skillcrush since you know, the whole endeavor is hopeless.

OR you can believe (as I do) that women of ALL ages can learn awesome technical skills and do bad ass things and show their friends and family members (and students, afterall most teachers in American public schools are still..women!) that women and girls can rock this tech world, and I HONESTLY believe this pipeline problem will solve itself.

Seriously, this belief that they are too old to learn anything useful is the #1 issue we face with women who come to Skillcrush to learn about technology. Women are convinced that it’s too late for them (even before Paul Graham told them it was). And it feeds into a reinforcing cycle that is coming down on all women ESPECIALLY all those 13 year olds.

PS I should of course take this opportunity to mention that we have thousands of women, ALL of them over the age of 13 (some as old as their 60’s) proving this idea all wrong.

PPS Want to talk to me more about this? I would love to chat with you! Shoot me an email at adda@skillcrush.com.

Adda Birnir

Adda is not only the CEO and founder of Skillcrush, but also an instructor. With her self-taught tech skills, she’s worked on building sites for the New York Times, ProPublica and MTV.

When Adda isn’t developing or teaching on Skillcrush, she enjoys watching Hall & Oates videos on YouTube.

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  • Robyn Cohen

    Thank you for this… So tired of the complaining, or the ‘women are not capable”, or that only young girls should learn code, etc. I just shared this on my site’s (girlsonit.com) FB and Twitter pages, basically saying that women of all ages need to get involved with tech in any way they want, starting now!

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    I think you’re right. Who are the role models, “poster girls”, etc. that young girls look up to? We need more of women in tech leaders to emerge and become visible in order to start seeing a change in that ratio.

  • arthole

    this misses Paul Graham’s point almost completely. 13 year olds do things they are interested in. many 13 year old boys who were interested in computers were the only person they knew who was interested in computers. And they worked alone, writing programs and learning on their own. While it may be true girls need role models, 13 year old boys do not start playing with computers and writing code because there are role models.

    I do not know of any 13, or 15, or 19 year old girls who are willing to break the rules to get access to computers or technology to experiment and try stuff out. I do know boys and men who will do or have done that very thing. Paul Graham’s comment is about HACKERS. it is not about genders. Why, and this is more true in America than elsewhere, Why are there so few women hackers? could it be because it goes against the norm? could it be because the narratives for hacking are subversive? could it be because hacking is about acquiring power IN SPITE OF people in authority?

    I really wish there were more hacker women. But there are not. I don’t think it’s because of men, I think this is an issue about our culture, and particularly about women, as it is mothers and teachers who dominate a child’s culture, women do not raise independent, adventurous, hacker women (although our culture used to do that). Our culture is opposed to raising hacker boys too, but I think the effects are more profound for girls.

    • sequoia

      I think it’s important to point out that the whole society around us consists of role models, and in tech what’s mostly made visible is men, particularly young brash men. So a 13-year-old boy is actually encouraged to dabble in tech by the world around him, and doesn’t necessarily need a teacher or other specific adult in his life to provide that role model.

      Girls and women have no such built-in role-modeling. We need to change that both by supplying personal role models for them AND by changing what’s depicted in the media.

      I’m in my early sixties, and it seems clear to me that there are fewer women in tech now than when I got my first job at it in the 1970s. I think the 1960’s and early 70’s, when feminism was becoming more noticed and encouraged, manifested in my high school and college years as the recognition that women were as capable as men at whatever we chose to do. The presence of a “mini-computer” for three weeks in my high-school math class was my first experience with programming (we programmed the solution to the quadratic equation on paper tape!).

      Come on, I’m sure we can, as a society, do similar things today.

      • arthole

        I agree. I’m 46 and there were older women programmers in various jobs I’ve had. They were often the best programmers to work with. But I see few to none younger than me. something changed in our culture.

        I don’t know why, but the most hacker-gender sabotaging statements I hear always come from women. In the couple of schools my kids have been too, there are women teachers, but a man runs the computer lab, or does the installation and maintenance of classroom computers. What I see is that perfectly capable women simply play dumb around computers. It reminds me of how women act around car mechanics.

        I have never heard a man say “Computer’s just don’t work right around me.” or “Computers and I just don’t get along.” I’m sure that everyone who gets roped into fixing computers has heard phrases like this. It’s magical thinking and I don’t understand why there are intelligent women who engage in it.

        • Adda

          Oh yeah, it’s so true! It’s terrible, women are conditioned to be terrified of computers and I agree, even incredibly smart women are convinced that computers are some sort of black magic that they can never understand.

          No good! Totally self-defeating, but I think the only way to get around it is to say: You CAN do it! No matter how old you are!

      • Lisa Hirsch

        You write: “13 year old boys do not start playing with computers and writing code because there are role models.”

        I assume you’re serious here, but really, the newspapers and news reports are full of men who invent things, who code, who run big computer companies. They’re full of reports on apps, on hardware, on software. Most of the people who are profiled are men. If you buy a computer magazine or read a tech web site, most of the tech articles are by men.

        Those people are all role models, whether you think of them as such or not.

  • Rudy

    Piffle phooey, arthole. I learned to code when I was 25. In 1973. I was a grad student in English literature. Not great at math. And female. Nobody discouraged me. It’s not about coding and computers and technology and role models. It’s about teaching people they have limits that don’t actually exist. I was never taught I had limits. I played with dolls and gobbled up romances. And played and watched sports and gobbled up science fiction. I don’t think there’s a magic elixir, or government program, or educational panacea, though, to open the minds of all the people who market those limits–parents, teachers, friends, community, advertising.

    • GirlWritingCode

      You hit the nail on the head when you said, “Nobody discouraged me.”

      I don’t know many other middle-school girls who asked for computer programming books for their birthdays, but I did. The difference was, I WAS discouraged from sitting in front of the computer all day to understand BASIC. I was given NO opportunities to do so at my public school and when I later received a math & science scholarship to a summer program at 16, I was told by my (female) adviser not to take computer programming because there was “nothing but boys in there” and placed in Anthropology instead. As a college freshman attempting an intro course in C#, I quickly realized that I, the only girl in the class, had little chance to catch up with all the boys who HADN’T been discouraged from studying programming during their adolescence.

      So here, I am a few weeks shy of 36, about to taking the plunge again, this time with JavaScript. Anybody who wants to stop me better step aside!

  • g0ldnugget

    Thank you. I am an example of ‘never too old to learn’ philosophy. I am a 50+ grandmother, a dedicated Linux user/hacker, and I recently released my first program, which I have been waiting for someone to write for a decade. I didn’t expect I would wind up writing it myself.

    I think it is important to remember that the idea that women can do anything men can do is a relatively new concept. Girls of my generation were not expected to hold jobs or even need credit in their own names.

    I was not allowed to touch my dads tools and had to sneak into his shop to experiment with wood working and electronics. In school, girls were not allowed in the shop classes. We were required to take ‘Home Economics’ (cooking and sewing) and typing.

    There are many more women in tech today, but few my age. I do think that slowly this male dominated field will give way to more women. But it will take time to undo generations of social conditioning, not just of the girls, but their parents who still choose to buy their ten year old daughter a Barbie instead of a chemistry set.

  • KK

    Thanks for the article Adda! I’m a 52 year old woman teaching myself HTML5, CSS3 and more… My daughter is a 24 year old starting up a web app company after working in the IT world for several years- self taught too. She inspires me every day. Thanks for your inspiration too!

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