Tech-savvy footsteps for girls to follow

I often say that I’m a “self-taught” software developer, but the reality is that my path into computer programming has involved a lot of teachers.

It all started when I was 11, and my dad started teaching me basic HTML. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I liked that I could get “My name is Charlotte” and a row of dancing dog gifs to display on my website.

When I was 12, my math teacher gave us TI-83 graphing calculators. I was the nerdy kid who actually read the instruction manual, learned that I could create games and spent the better part of my math classes building and refining a casino game, complete with blackjack, dice, and slots. Rather than reprimanding me, my math teacher encouraged my interest in problem solving by inviting me to join the MathCounts team.

When I was 15, my then-boyfriend told me about PHP. Together, using website tutorials, we built a message board script. We sold exactly two copies, which completely hooked us on entrepreneurship, and ended up spending the next 10+ years building and selling software together.

When I was 17, I worked part time for a small web development shop. They taught me ColdFusion, MsSQL, and how to tell your statistics teacher that you need to step outside to take an emergency call about a bug in software that’s about to ship.

When I was 25, I was accepted to TechStars Boulder, where I got to know the smartest, most driven group of people I’d ever met. They taught me how to network effectively, they helped me understand which technologies were best used in which scenarios, and they introduced me to git commands, deploy scripts, and how to manage my unix server.

And the list goes on…

So, what does all this have to do with the topic of “women in technology”? Attracting more women to the STEMs fields is a mission that’s very important to me, but it’s a topic that I think is frequently mishandled and misunderstood. It’s often said that we should make tech environments more “female friendly”, that we should offer female-only programming classes, or that we should coddle women to make sure they feel comfortable in the male-dominated world of coding. That’s ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong, sexism does exist in the programming world, and that needs to stop. But segregation and babying isn’t the answer. Singling women as the “odd ones out” only perpetuates the belief that women are less innately able to perform at the same level as men.

Looking back over my own history in the programming world, there were certainly times when I felt excluded or denigrated simply because I’m a woman. But there were two things that kept me going in spite of the rude remarks: 1. my love of coding, and 2. my relationships with people who believed in me. So it seems to me the answer to the question, “How do we get more women interested in technology?” is twofold.

First, we need to ignite a passion for technology early. I think this can be as simple as teaching your daughter some basic HTML, or as elaborate as requiring basic programming in schools, but the key is to show young girls that they’re capable of creation. Not every girl will love to code – just as not every boy loves to code – but teaching basic computer skills will, at worst, impart a better understanding of our technologically-inclined world, and at best, give young girls the confidence to dream about what they can create.

Second, we need to make sure we’re encouraging women to pursue their interests in spite of the naysayers. This applies to anyone in any field, but especially to young women in male-dominated industries, who are more likely to feel put off by a remark like “girls aren’t good at computer science”. We need to make sure that these young women have a support system that will remind them to ignore the haters and focus on what they love.

While these two pieces are sufficient for boosting the number of young women interested in technology, there’s also a third piece to the puzzle that’s important for retention: industry-specific role models. Following the successes of women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg provides women with the confidence and ambition to keep pushing themselves to the top of their field.

We need more female role models in the spotlight to show young women that there’s no limit to their potential. It’s one of the reasons that, despite my tendencies toward introversion, I’m speaking at events like SXSW V2V in Vegas and the upcoming Startup Phenomenon: Women in Boulder Sept. 3, where I hope you’ll consider joining me if this cause is also of interest to you. The more noise we “women-in-technology” can make about our existence, the more we will encourage future generations to follow in our footsteps.