Help our girls hack their world

Eva Fog,
Founder and Chairwoman of the organization DigiPippi
Odense, Denmark

One upon a time, there were both women and men in the STEM industries. Great minds of both genders worked side-by-side throughout the creation of the NASA space program and other such achievements. And then something happened.

Exactly what is still being debated — but whatever it was, it changed the paradigm of gender equality in the STEM fields dramatically. Today, only 25 percent of the tech industry consists of women, leaving a great, big gender gap that threatens the development of our future.

Why some would ask? And more importantly, why should we care? Why do we need gender equality in the STEM fields? Why does it matter?

It matters because of the same reasons it matters in every other field. It matters because diversity is the way to go. It matters because men and women bring different things to the table. It matters because our entire system is built on tech, and if it is made by mostly one gender, it will cater to mostly that gender.

If we are about 50/50 percent of each gender, and women have trouble relating to the tech being developed, that leaves 50 percent of the world’s population dependent on the other 50 percent in a way that benefits no one.

Consciously or not, this is a dangerous path to follow. We have seen it before in history and it has never worked out well for anyone.

The realities of living as a female geek

  • Being looked down upon for being a girl interested in technology, and not being taken seriously solely on that account
  • Being harassed, especially online, as part of being the only female amongst dozens of males
  • Being measured against different standards, both favorably and unfavourably
  • Losing out in the friends department as I often had to choose between being a girl amongst girls or a girl amongst boys due to my interest in tech
  • Not being able to find female role models to look up to and model myself after

I could continue to focus on the hardships that being a geek girl has caused me, but this is not a pity piece. I don’t want to be pitied for my experiences, as they have given me excellent insight into the reasons why the tech gender gap needs to be addressed. They now fuel my desire to find solutions to a severe issue.

It starts at home

She first place the change starts is at home. It is a very common thing for women to let their husbands, boyfriends, or male relatives take care of the tech — and many have an almost fearful relationship with handling technology beyond the normal consumerist way. This influences the way children view the use of it since parents are their main role models from birth.

Not only do girls see that their main gender role model recoils from tech, but they also notice that males often have to take over. From the boy’s point of view, this leads him to view his mom as incompetent, which then becomes his basis for understanding females and STEM-related subjects.

As a pedagogue who has specialized in technology, I have met many children — both boys, and girls — with this way of thinking programmed into their core beliefs. It’s much the same story with most fields in STEM, and it has to stop.

Since the popular understanding is that tech is for boys and men, and girls and women don’t understand it, I have seen many confused children trying to figure out why I don’t fit the mold. I have even had boys telling girls—in front of me—that tech isn’t for them. These boys knew that I was pretty good at technology and respected me for it, but they still felt the need to tell their female counterparts that technology was a boys’ toy.

Afterward, I’d always confront them with what they had said, asking if it applied to me also. Every time, the boys would say “of course not”. I would then confront them with the duplicity of their statements. Was I not a woman? Yes—but I was not a ‘normal’ woman. Asked why, their answers echoed their core belief: that the female gender was not a natural tech user, unlike the male. The worst part was not the fact that the boys were misguided, but the fact that the girls seldom argued with this skewed logic. They sort of gave up and accepted defeat.

It’s seldom a lack of interest

Some might say that they (the girls) had this reaction because they didn’t have an interest in tech, but for the most part that wasn’t true. Most of the girls wanted to try it out, wanted to play video games with the boys, and had an interest in technology. They just didn’t put up a fight. I believe some of the reason behind this was the fear of being wrong or losing out. They decided that it was better to be wronged than to put themselves in a position where they couldn’t win without someone else losing.

This is precisely the issue that is at the core of the gender gap. The way we, for centuries, have taught girls to be nice, proper, and mindful of others’ feelings before their own. The only girls I’ve seen stand up for themselves in any way in this sort of situation were the ones who either had a very involved tech dad who did his part in letting them participate or girls that had been under my wing for a while. And both kind of girls still sought approval every time they moved a step forward in their technological development.

The boys, on the other hand, usually just threw themselves at it and sometimes failed spectacularly, only to rise again for another tumble. Only a few of the girls were able to follow in their wake, and the rest would sit and wait for me to help them not fail. I wish I was exaggerating but unfortunately, I’m not.

With age, it gets worse, and many girls end up having to make the same choice I did: to have girlfriends or not, to be a part of female friendship culture, or miss out. Being a geek girl is not a coveted title, and amongst girls, it’s usually not a socially acceptable thing. Technology is weird, different and a ‘boy thing’—unless it has to do with social media culture. Then it’s the hippest, most favorable thing ever. Being good at taking pictures or making videos is cool, as long as it’s a socially acceptable topic like fashion, food, or makeup.

How we can start helping

If we want girls to feel technologically empowered, we have to play by their social rules instead of trying to force the ‘trial and error’ ways onto them. Even though I get scolded a lot for saying it, girls and boys learn things differently and that’s good! We don’t want generic children. We shouldn’t want both genders to be a homogenous mass. And though I say the sexes are different from each other, each and every person is also unique. I am not trying to be politically correct because that doesn’t interest me. What interests me is us securing a future where diversity and creativity are on more neutral ground. And to get there we have to lift girls up to the same level we have been lifting boys to for the last three decades.

As I have stated before, I am not interested in everyone becoming a champion of the tech world. To each his —or her— own. But without a change in society, especially in the educational and industrial areas, we will have generations of tech illiterates, and most will be female. If the gender skew had been the opposite I would have been just as adamant about the change. Only, it would probably never had gone as far as it has. Historically, men have always had the upper hand, so any imbalance would probably have been addressed much sooner.

Fortunately, I do not stand alone with this wish for progress and equality. This year Melinda Gates decided to shed light on the issue after years of seeing it unfold. Great companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Google are putting the spotlight on the gap and trying to find ways of mending it. Usually, they target girls in their late teens and early twenties, and this is where the approach I have developed differs.

DigiPippi — a girl’s tech club

In2015 I started the organization DigiPippi, inspired by the nordic girl’s hero Pippi Longstocking, who once famously said, “I’ve never tried that before — I’m sure I can do it”. She’s a young adolescent girl that never gives up and always finds a way. That is what I want every girl in the world to feel like, and that is how I want to teach them to approach technology. It doesn’t matter if it concerns how to set up their phone or computer, or if it is about how to become builders of new technology and software.

By targeting girls aged 7 through 13, DigiPippi strives to help them find their feet in tech before hormones, dating, and general issues of ‘finding yourself’ make an appearance. By using the things they already know and have an interest in, DigiPippi helps them ‘hack’ their world through technology.

We’ve had great success in holding workshops (videos available on YouTube), where girls can get familiar with the aspects of planning, filming, editing, and posting online. The storytelling, combined with female role models, small groups of girls at about the same skill level, and a friendly and fun environment, helps them open up about themselves and their interests. It also helps them develop their passion for technology, without it ever being the obvious end goal.

Existing tech to get you started

Other great ways of getting girls excited about tech are encouraging them to make robots with personalities using code, build things that are pretty, fun, and/or functional, and focus on things that cater to the special bond between girlfriends.

Technologies like Jewelbot and the SmartGurlz drone are great new examples of interesting ways to reach the very girly aspects. There are countless other examples of gender-neutral tech, and most have a face or a personality. It might seem simple, but if it works and gives children the feeling that they are working on it together instead of apart, we can slowly but surely closing the gap. Boys can learn that girls are good at technology as well, and girls can come out of their comfort zone and start taking part more. Let’s help our girls hack their world. Together.

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