20 Sep

Women and geek events

“I would feel like I had something to prove, and that I’d have to know something really well and expect a grilling on it” was the response I got from Fiona, my housemate and fellow “girl geek” who works in software compliancy for Betfair, when I asked her “Why don’t you go to events like I go to?”. And this is a girl who lives with me and has to listen to me blathering on about how much of a good time I have at events like Web Standards Group meetings, BarCampLondon and d.Construct.

The reason I asked this spawned from the “girly geek” slot at BarCampLondon when the 5 or so girls at the event (out of what, 60?) got together (with a few selected guys) and mostly chatted about why there aren’t more girls at events like this, and how more could be encouraged.

The main reasons discussed were just as Fiona confirmed – girls probably feel intimidated by the male dominated events. Having said that, Fiona also made a good point that most girls in the computing industry, since they’ve got that far, are used to working mostly with men and are usually pretty “bulshy” and confident. I know this is somewhat the case for me, having been “the only girl” in classes, lectures and departments since I was 16.

However, going that one step further as to actually stand up with a new group of men and try to show that you have some knowledge and be taken seriously is where the problem seems to lie. The fear of not being taken seriously or “don’t listen to her, she’s just a little girl” – to quote Fiona – is a real mental barrier for most.

I think a way to perhaps improve this might be to really show people that everyone at these events, regardless of whether they’re male or female will be treated with respect and listened to on a level playing field. How this should be done isn’t so obvious (blog your experiences more everyone!), but it’s worth doing.

On a slight tangent that reminded me I had started this entry, the “classy” London newspaper “Metro” had a very small feature showing a page from the new “IT Screen Goddesses Calender ‘07“. Featured was a rather stunning woman scantily dressed as Princess Leia. The caption beneath explained the calender had been produced, featuring 12 women who work in the IT industry, to promote IT to women and encourage them into the sector.

Right.

Given my above statements, the last thing that is going to encourage women into the sector is a 12 page spread of women in various costumes of well known film sex-icons (I do exaggerate a little here). The problem is already the fear that they will be objectified and rated solely on their gender, rather than taken seriously as intellectual equals. I believe the angle on the calender was that it was to show that “IT isn’t just for geeks” (what’s wrong with being a geek?), but I feel it was misguided and targeted incorrectly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not offended – they’re very pretty ladies and I’d love to be a hot geek girl like that, and the photos were tasteful (although not the most accomplished). I just don’t think they got it right for the people they were intending to aim it at. Who’s actually going to hang that on their wall at the end of the day? (I would like to add that the purpose of the calender, apart from some pretty eye-candy, is to raise money to be put into educational and careers services for women… but I hope they target that a little more suitably.)

And this ultimately brings me back to my point. Equality is what should be promoted. I have a sneaking suspicion I have a different view of equality than some though. For me, it’s not equal numbers of every kind of person doing something. I think that kind of equality damages overall quality. So yeah, you’ve got a 50/50 gender split and each of every minority in your company – well done – but did you actually employ the people who are most skilled at their jobs? It’s all a bit “politically correct” gone mad to do that.

My bottom line is – don’t encourage people into something just because they fulfil a made-up quota of the kind or types of people you think you need (this goes for jobs, events, etc.). Encourage them because they’re interested and want to get involved, but may be finding a hurdle in following through (for women, it’s probably the reasons I’ve discussed above…).

Regarding my entry point to this post – that means that if you know a girl who’s really into her craft and she seems a bit keen on attending the next BarCamp, for example, drag her along and tell her to get over it (same goes for you shy boys too)! I’m pretty sure he or she will thank you.