zeros and ones: why IT isn’t just for boys
It was my first week into year 11 and I had chosen to take Information, Digital Media and Technology – commonly known as IT – as an elective, and I did not pre-empt the controversy that this would arouse.
‘IT is for boys’, was what my friend told me. ‘You should drop it and take up textiles with me.’ As tempting as textiles sounded, I had chosen IT for well thought out reasons. Our society relies so heavily on technology that being able to confidently navigate your way around computing is what I consider an essential skill. Our world is transitioning into a digital age and I reasoned that having a certificate of IT competency on my résumé would put me one step ahead, at least in the eyes of an employer.
To the surprise of my classmates, working with computers, installing software and being capable of basic coding sounded quite appealing to me. Apparently, I was not alone: two other girls had chosen it as a subject as well. That made us three girls out of 198 students in our year to choose it as an elective. I guess girls just aren’t expected to know how to multi-task or run macro scripts.
‘$5 says she can’t do it’. Two weeks into my class and a bet had been placed on whether or not I could complete a piece of code. The guys found it amusing watching me work with computers alongside them, and it reminded me of a quote from The Dictator: ‘I love it when women go to school. It’s like seeing a monkey on roller skates – it means nothing to them, but it’s so adorable for us’. Except in this case, it was only in relation to IT class – no one thought twice about girls doing extension English.
It did feel as if by taking the class we were going against the grain. Many of the guys in my class were close friends, but it didn’t stop them from making me feel out of place. It wasn’t always just jokes or playful remarks though. Some of the guys genuinely believed that I was incapable of doing class activities and insisted on explaining minute details to me or overtaking my work altogether. Guys weren’t the only ones who commented on me taking the class. Many girls made remarks to me about how I must have chosen IT just so that I could get with one of the guys. It never occurred to anyone that some girls may have a genuine interest in technology.
I guess you could attribute some of the silent discrimination of women in computing towards shows such as The IT Crowd. When one of the characters, Jen, joins the IT department as a relationship manager, she is met with considerable opposition as to her capabilities in working with technology and throughout the show this becomes a recurrent theme. Although it is amusing watching Jen tap away at a disconnected keyboard or deliver a speech on how the internet is located within a small box, one message becomes apparent: women can’t work with technology.
One of the girls who did IT with me was a very close friend of mine. She was a very enthusiastic student in our class and as we progressed through she became increasingly confident with her skills and actually decided that she wanted to pursue an IT based career after we graduated. She works in a retail store and has continually expressed to her employer her desire to work in the technology department. Although she has more experience with technology than many of her similar-aged workmates, her employer puts her in the clothes department or on checkout duty with the rest of the girls. He even went as far as explaining to her that ‘the technology department is best suited for the boys.’
My IT class did improve. I gained a level respect from the guys in my class because after our first term together, I ended up coming second for the subject. Fewer remarks were made to me or the other girls and sometimes I was even asked for advice.
I often wonder why women are underrepresented in computing. Perhaps it’s less a matter of discrimination but rather a way of accustomed thinking – that women wouldn’t be interested in gaming or coding. As our society progresses, hopefully the idea of women in technology will become more and more common and an IT based career will be an appropriate and empowering choice for young girls.
I have an IT degree from the 80s. It sounds like things have got worse if your experience is normal. Gender has nothing to do with technology. Men and women have been involved in technology from the start. It’s misogyny and discrimination that keeps women and girls from really well paid and challenging careers in IT.