I’ve been fascinated by computers since I was at least 12 years old.
I was a homeschooled kid. I had a lot of opportunity to study topics that engaged me. With encouragement and support from my parents, I grew into an autodidact before I even knew the meaning of the word. I disassembled discarded PCs my dad would bring home from work, taking components out of one machine and installing them into another to see if they would function as intended. I was always working toward creating the perfect Frankensteined computer.
I checked out a book from the library about how to build your own PC, and I read every word. I also read dozens of books on HTML and XHTML. I spent hours hand-coding simple websites in Notepad and comparing the rendered results between Internet Explorer and Firefox. I sent away for 10 copies of Ubuntu, but never successfully got the CD boot function to work on my late ’90s model hand-me-down PC.
One of my favorite books I read over and over was Hacker Cracker by Ejovi Nuwere and David Chanoff, an autobiographical tale of teenage Nuwere’s “journey from the mean streets of Brooklyn to the frontiers of cyberspace.” It was chock-full of danger, excitement, and a certain kind of power in the discovery of the digital underworld.
Back then, I felt like anything was possible as long as you had a modem and a keyboard. At some point, I lost that feeling.
“At the heart of this debate and so many others is that we do not consider women’s lived experiences to be valid data.”
I wanted to study programming or computer science in college, but ultimately gave up that dream because of the math requirements. Math had always been hard for me. I struggled a lot with math and did only marginally better with a B-average during my one semester at public high school. To this day, I tell everyone how bad I am at math, how I had to drop elementary algebra as a college freshman. No, seriously, I’m really that bad.
Now, I’m approaching 30 and I find myself rethinking it: Was I bad at math because biology decided that my brain wasn’t equipped for that level of mathematical thinking? Or was I bad at math because my confidence was never built up, because girls aren’t expected to be good at numbers and logic and because I don’t always learn in the same way other kids do?
In the end, I found a way to work in technology through a softer lens (with fewer math requirements). I’m a communicator. I facilitate between engineer and layperson. I focus on the people more than the tools because it’s an important job and someone needs to do it. I’m a user advocate. So much of my passion for this industry is the intersection of people and technology, and I am proud to have a place there.
But… I still feel left out. I still look longingly to the ever-exclusive “cool kids” club of programmers and developers. People who were lucky enough to be born with some predisposed gift for numbers and mechanics and logic. They remind me constantly that I am not one of them. For every position I’ve held in this industry—technical writer, instructional designer—there has been a painfully obvious divide between me and the “tech” people.
The sting of that divide worsens because it is unmistakably gendered. All of the teams I have worked on have been primarily women. In my most recent role, my training team was entirely women (a standard demographic at my company), while the development teams were composed of mostly men. In my previous job as a technical writer, the numbers were slightly better. Of the team I worked with on a daily basis, there might be three or four men for every dozen women writers.
It’s not just me. Overwhelmingly, the safe and comfortable way for women to exist in a STEM space is through roles in marketing, communications, training, and design. Women are expected to bring the soft, people skills to any professional role. The attitude toward these softer tech roles paired with largely female staffing is no coincidence.