The Best of Systers Blog Dealing Daily with Gender Stereotypes in Computing
I was at my very first Grace Hopper conference a few years ago listening to Shirley Tilghman, the president of Princeton University, give the keynote address. She explained that in her experience there are two kinds of women who succeed in STEM programs. There are those who put on metaphorical blindfolds and ignore all of hindrances that surround them, and there are the women who see the issues and face them head on. (There is, of course, the third group, which is the set of women who see the problem and decide to drop out or never join, but that is a topic for a different post.) It is this second group of women that Sophia Chung finds herself within.
In this recent article posted by Sophia, she discusses how she actively combats stereotypes as she works at Facebook as a software engineer. Her bio, provided on the Huffington Post website, explains, “Sophia Chung is a software engineer at Facebook. She studied computer science at MIT and has been working in the tech industry for nine years in the San Francisco Bay Area.” So with her 9 years of experience, Sophia reports that she has become quite accomplished at responding to and combating gender stereotypes. Much like the talkbackbot, Sophia is active and positive in her responses when confronted with stereotypes.
The problem isn’t that there are stereotypes. After all, stereotypes help us cognitively manage a confusing world and are a large part of how we learn. The problem is when stereotypes are propagated by a group that is in ‘power’, with the result that they are hurtful to a minority. In the case of women in computing, the stereotype is that women just aren’t as good at computing as men. To not find myself on too much of a rant, women in technology are told that because we are bad at math, we can’t be good at computers; or, that because we aren’t good at computers we will not be good at computer games. This doesn’t just affect us when we are in the workplace, but it even affects 15-year-old girls across the globe. This problem is so prevalent for women in computing, that there have been repeated sessions at the Grace Hopper Conference on stereotype threat.
Sophia’s response is therefore a refreshing one. (In contrast, I personally like taking the @feministhulk position and start to fume.) Sophia writes, “Situations like [being confronted with a negative gender stereotype] are the breakthrough moments when stereotypes start to disintegrate… For me, witnessing someone reevaluate their opinion about women’s role in technology is empowering, and being the catalyst of these moments is even more rewarding.” She argues that by being her feminine self (i.e., wearing high-heels) she actively combats the negative stereotypes because she is both feminine and really good at her job.
My issue is that when you are the only woman in a room filled with men, you look like a fluke… no matter how amazing you are. And, what I worry about is that the stereotype isn’t that women can’t do computing, but that really amazing women are the only ones who can do computing. Meanwhile, there are are all those women who got an A- or a B+… or even a C, and thought that they weren’t good enough to be in computing.
The problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are annoying for those of us who recognize them and still persist at knocking them down. Yeah, it feels awful when you sit down in a meeting and the men turn to you to automatically take the notes. Nothing is going to stop that from being a learning experience. The problem is that, because of stereotypes, there are too many women who don’t persist in this field, and even more who won’t even consider tech as an option. Having a positive attitude might be the right position to take, but I’m just not convinced that it is going to crush those persistent negative gender stereotypes in computing.