In college, my math professors liked to give us “problems of the month.” A problem of the month was a particularly difficult problem to solve, and we were required to try to solve at least one problem of the month, once a semester. We could earn extra credit if we correctly solved the problem.
During my sophomore year, I realized that one “problem of the month” could best be solved iteratively. I checked the official rules for “problem of the month,” and noted they were silent about HOW I solved it. The rules only covered who could not help me (i.e. other human beings). Since the rules did not forbid it, I sat down, did some basic coding, and wrote a computer program that I could run overnight on a lab computer to solve the problem. The next morning, I collected the correct answer from the computer and printed out a copy of the code to show my work. While it certainly wasn’t what the department was expecting, I got full credit. I got some good-natured ribbing about being a computer science major and using java code. I was told that my professors were surprised someone thought to code a program to solve the problem (this was not how problems of the month were traditionally solved). What I didn’t get was anyone suggesting they were shocked I coded because I was a female. (You go, Gettysburg College! Four for you, Gettysburg College!)
I have to admit, it was a nice change from my high school experience. In high school, when I signed up for a C+ class, the teacher pulled me aside before the semester began to ask if I really wanted to take the class. His reason for why I might not want to? I was the only girl in a class full of boys. To this day, I’m not sure why being the only girl should be a reason not to take a class. I wanted to learn how to code, so I took the class. Not only that, I was good at it. I blew through the assignments so quickly and easily that the teacher had to develop entirely new, more difficult projects for me so I would have something to do other than stare at the wall.
Look, here’s the deal. I’m a female, and I’m a damn good coder. Coding is intuitive for me. My mind naturally processes data in the same way a computer would. I’m also highly skilled in mathematics, and hold an advanced degree in chemistry. I’m not an anomaly. I have a large number of female friends who could make these same statements.
It can be frustrating being a female in the STEM fields. We are constantly being misrepresented in the media, and even by some of our male peers. Just today, I read a comment a male coder wrote online about how women coders are only hired to meet affirmative action guidelines. (I almost responded with “I’m sorry I code better than you,” but then decided I didn’t feel like getting into a pissing contest with a skunk three days before my second degree black belt test. I’m too busy training to kick ass to argue with a neanderthal).
While there are ignorant idiots out there, recently there’s been a push to encourage females to embrace engineering. Commercials like this one from Verizon demonstrate how little things we say to girls can impact their beliefs as to whether a STEM career is appropriate for them. There’s now a line of engineering toys for girls. And, while I believe that blocks, tinker toys, and train sets are and always have been “girl toys,” I have to commend people for trying to encourage girls to be comfortable in pursuing their interests in the STEM fields. It’s a nice change.
But then we had to go take a few steps backwards.
If you haven’t been following the Internet today, this happened. And by “this,” I mean Mattel published a book that teaches little girls that they are not smart enough to be software engineers.
Yes, the book is called “I can be a computer engineer.” No, that is not the actual message of the book. Instead, the message is – and I kid you not – that the girl is only good for design tasks. The boys do everything else. And what do boys do that girls do not? Coding. And, apparently, running anti-virus software (the book implies this is too hard for the poor, pitiful female brain to grasp, despite it requiring nothing more than clicking on an icon and hitting “run scan”).
You guys, I never realized male genitalia were required to be able to press buttons on a keyboard or move a mouse. Silly me. I’ve been using my fingers for that.
All snark aside, I know I’m beating a dead horse here. I know I JUST BLOGGED ABOUT THIS. And yet, here we are. Again.
We have got to stop telling our girls they are not smart enough to be scientists, mathematicians, and computer engineers. If a girl wants to design the graphics and storyline for a video game, that’s awesome. If she wants to be able to code the game as well, we need to make sure she knows she can do that, and that it’s awesome, too.
Our failure to encourage women to pursue STEM education and careers only hurts us, as it takes capable minds out of the process of finding solutions to our problems. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to live in a world with less disease and better standards of living. I’d like to see a cure for cancer and HIV/AIDS in my lifetime. I’d like to see more advanced robotic surgery techniques that allow better treatment and speedier recoveries. I want to see better diagnostic tools, safer transportation systems, and faster, more robust global communication. We should have all the best minds on these things to ensure we’re working towards a better future. When you take half the population out of the running to do so, you’re cutting your chances at success.
When you tell a girl she’s not smart enough to be a scientist or engineer, you’re hurting all of us. So stop it. Stop it right now.
UPDATE: A graduate student in a computer science program wrote this – https://cfiesler.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/barbieremixed.pdf – and it is awesome.