Breaking the code: Gender stereotypes hinder women in tech fields

Solving problems: Hannah Sexton works with her peers on the UNC Asheville student coding team. On the six-person team, Sexton is the only female. Photo by Caitlin Byrd
Solving problems: Hannah Sexton works with her peers on the UNC Asheville student coding team. On the six-person team, Sexton is the only female. Photo by Caitlin Byrd

Solving problems: Hannah Sexton works with her peers on the UNC Asheville coding team. On the six-person team, Sexton is the only female. Photo by Caitlin Byrd

Once a week, the computer scientist dons ballet shoes and dances her heart out. The dancing began in third grade; computer science didn’t start until college, and mathematics has been a constant. But as the only female member of UNC Asheville’s student programming team, Hannah Sexton says she's used to being the only woman in the room.

“In general, it tends to be more of a male-dominated field,” she notes. “It was interesting for me, because in middle school some of the best kids in math were females, but it seems as they get older it's more males.”

Nonetheless, Sexton stuck with it. At Buncombe County Early College, she took Calculus I and II. “It was what challenged me, but in a way, I enjoyed it,” the UNCA senior recalls.

So when she got to UNCA, Sexton expected to major in applied mathematics. But a required computer programming course prompted a course correction: She switched to a double major, adding computer science to the mix. And this year, Sexton joined the six-person programming team, which competes in the annual ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. The high-profile event poses problems requiring both an understanding of complex mathematical concepts and top-notch coding skills.

The team’s gender breakdown, however, reflects that of the tech industry as a whole. In 2011, women held 57 percent of all professional positions in the country but only 25 percent of technology jobs, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Meanwhile, the local tech industry is growing — about 3.5 percent in the last five years, says Ben Teague, economic development director for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. That’s good news for information technology professionals, computer programmers and software developers. But details about Asheville’s tech sector remain sketchy: Most of the data is more anecdotal than empirical, and both men and women in the field here maintain that how the industry grows locally could be just as important as how quickly it develops.

Hacking it

Forty-two people gathered in a classroom June 1 at A-B Tech for Hack for Food, a 12-hour “hackathon” sponsored by Code for Asheville, a local nonprofit that’s an arm of Code for America. Code groups aim to use technology and community resources to improve access to data and help modernize government.

Hack for Food participants were charged with creating a phone app that would promote access to healthy local food while addressing issues of food insecurity. Each person had a role. Some were city staffers or members of the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council; others were computer programmers writing lines of code or building data structures; some were Code for Asheville “brigade” members.

But looking back at the event, Code For Asheville co-captains Dave Michelson and Scott Barnwell noticed a missing link. Not one of the 13 participating women came from the tech industry.

Michelson and Barnwell can’t account for the discrepancy, but it’s much on their minds. “We're trying to be really proactive on it,” notes Barnwell. “The awareness is there: It's just trying to figure out how we best address it. We've been talking about reaching out to the females that participate [in Code for Asheville meet-ups and the online group] and asking them what about this appeals to you, and what do you think would help in terms of recruitment.”

Differing perspectives

Rebecca Bruce believes there's a pressing need to address these issues — in the field, in the classroom and in society at large.

“Technological advancements, which are made by people in computer science and engineering, are shaping our culture. We need to have all sorts of understandings and input into that process of creating technology,” says Bruce, a UNCA computer science professor. “The people who do this don't need to all be just one type of person — usually your white American male. So much is lost through having only that one perspective.”

That lack of gender balance, she explains, can unintentionally affect the whole dynamic of what’s considered acceptable.

“It can feel awkward to go into a room where you're the only female. On a deeper level, however, there is more to being outnumbered. Sometimes there are conversations and comments and things that fly around that aren't intended at all to be sexist but in fact are,” she continues. “You do feel the need to prove yourself, or you feel threatened by the fact that maybe you really don't belong.”

When she worked on the space shuttle program in New Mexico, Bruce recalls, there was no women's restroom at one of the testing sites. She had to use the men's room and post a sign when she went in there.

Lynn Banks knows that feeling all too well. After attending networking events hosted by Tech After Five and Meet the Geeks, Banks wanted to create a place where she felt she belonged, rather than situations where maybe 85 percent of the participants are male. So last year she teamed up with Constance Markley, Dalene Powell and Pam Silvers to found Asheville Women in Technology. The group’s goal, Banks explains, is simple: give women in the field a support system and mentoring opportunities.

It seems to be working. The group has about 70 active members, she reports, and on average, about 20 attend the monthly meetings.

“We always joke around and say there's no crying in technology: You've just got to pull your big-girl panties on and go with it,” notes Banks, an engineer for TSAChoice. “But I don't think men understand the adversity women face in the workplace. They certainly have their own challenges that they meet each day, but we're quite different from them.”

Female pioneers

For women hoping to pursue a career in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), those challenges usually start early. Marietta Cameron, an associate professor of computer science at UNCA, still remembers when her sixth-grade teacher told her male classmates, “‘I would be ashamed of myself if the girls in my class would beat up on me in math the way these two girls are beating up on you guys.’ Later I realized it wasn’t a compliment: This guy was saying women weren’t supposed to be better than men in mathematics.”

UNCA, notes Cameron, has no specific program encouraging young women to enroll in STEM fields. But A-B Tech received a nearly $200,000 National Science Foundation grant last year to recruit and retain women in its STEM programs, which include information-systems security, computer engineering, computer information, electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, networking and sustainability. Silvers, who chairs the school’s Business Computer Technologies Department, believes the needed change can begin in the classroom. During the 2010-11 school year, she reports, women accounted for about 57 percent of the school’s total enrollment but only 12 percent of students in its technology programs. Unofficial numbers, says Silvers, suggest that the percentage of women in those programs has now grown to 18 percent.

A large part of the recruitment effort, she believes, involves changing ideas about who works in STEM fields and what those jobs are actually like.

“A lot of times, the people we see pictured in stories or ads or anything about technology and engineering tend to be a male working by himself at a desk, as opposed to someone working on a team,” she points out. “Part of the campaign we're doing is ‘Picture yourself in technology.’ It's providing the female role model, showing that other women have been successful in these careers.”

Amy Daugherty, an environmental science major at A-B Tech, is already filling that encouraging role even though she’s still a student herself, helping her peers stay the course. When a classmate grew dismayed about an exam grade and seriously considered leaving a STEM program, for example, Daugherty encouraged her to seek tutoring instead, gently reminding her that one grade is not the end. Having someone who understands the unique challenges women face in these fields, she maintains, can make all the difference.

“When it comes to men, they've had so many people help them: They have a very paved path. We've had a path that's been blazed by the wonderful women ahead of us, but it gets overgrown, because there's not enough of us to keep it cleared,” Daugherty observes. “But I truly believe that the more I go through, the easier it's going to be for other women to come after me.”

Cultural programming

Banks, however, believes that while changes in the classroom are important, we also need a shift in cultural norms. “I think it has to start with parents and teachers — not automatically classifying females with Barbie dolls and princesses, and realizing that they’d enjoy dropping Mentos in a Coke bottle and watching it explode just as much as a little boy.”

Sexton agrees. While she’d love to see more females in the field, she thinks “It would have to come to a time when the population in general would not view certain jobs as being for women and certain jobs for men.”

In a small way, that change may already have begun. Judging by his own experience, Michelson of Code for Asheville believes that a series of small steps and jettisoned assumptions can eventually add up to major change in the industry’s makeup. "I've asked my son if he wanted to learn how to code,” he reveals. “Now I wonder why I haven't asked my daughter, too.”

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at cbyrd@mountainx.com.

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