Why Women in Tech should be more like Penny from the BBT
“Lisa, you should study computer science”, said my mother, an ex-programmer, to me many years ago. “Ew no — I don’t want to become like M.” (M. was the geek in my high school class). And this is how I fell into the trap many girls fall into when deciding what university degree to pursue. If you had asked me back then how I perceive computer scientists, I would have described them as men with no interpersonal skills who spend their free time playing computer games or solving difficult mathematical problems — basically a mix of all the geeky characters from the Big Bang Theory.
So I studied law. If someone had told me that someday I would be doing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence I would have thought that person was crazy. But here I am. When people ask me what made me apply for a Master’s programme in Computer Science I struggle to answer because the answer is not very straightforward. But in this article, I will try my best to explain my decision to pursue a career in tech.
My parents, Soviet immigrants, earned their living in Germany with general computer services ranging from hardware replacement to data restoration. I grew up surrounded by computers. During my third year at university, I needed some additional cash so I got a job at the “laptop surgery” of my university where we had to deal with students’ and staffs’ personal computers. I was the only girl working there. I remember a girl once coming in who needed a hard drive replacement and reluctantly handing me her laptop. She later admitted that she did not trust a girl with such a job. Having watched my mother my whole life bending over laptops with a screwdriver in her hand, I could not comprehend that — what does my gender have to do with my skills?
Later, my best male friend told me about a Computer Science Master’s degree at Imperial College which did not require having a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM subject. I had no idea that such a thing as a conversion course even existed. This was the first time I started considering changing my career path.
My way of thinking was the following: Firstly, I had nothing to lose. I had a Bachelor’s degree in law, so I could, after the Master’s, still pursue a career in law. Secondly, I knew this would involve a lot of hard work and I wanted to experience one year of hard-core university life which I did not experience during my law degree. And lastly, I saw an opportunity in being a female who pursues a career in tech.
I wanted to be surrounded by intelligent people who would inspire me and motivate me to set myself higher goals. Also, I wanted to contribute to breaking the stereotype that female computer scientists don’t look much different to their male counterparts. During my Master’s degree, I realised that there is indeed a big need for this.
I was changing my shoes before the presentation of our group project, putting on high heels. A girl from my course commented, “I would not wear that. They will think that you are just pretty and not smart”. What does my outfit have to do with my skills? Turns out that my coursemate was onto something. Many women conceal their femininity in male-dominated workplaces for exactly that reason: to appear more intelligent and be taken more seriously. In a study from 2016 researchers at Heidelberg University showed that women wearing feminine outfits activate the “female stereotype” and lead to a lower attribution of computer skills and general competence (e.g. intelligence) compared to women who wear neutral outfits.
This all needs to change. Young girls need to stop thinking that computer scientists are anti-social geeks and women need to stop feeling like they need to conceal their femininity to be taken seriously by their male counterparts (or students). If women continue downplaying their femininity and assimilate to masculine norms, the masculine status quo is maintained. We need to help people see that anyone can be a scientist.
The #iLookLikeAnEngineer hashtag is a great example of how people in engineering are celebrating that there is no one type of engineer. This hashtag went viral after Isis Anchalee (then Wenger), a female engineer, had her status as a programmer questioned online because she was “too pretty” to possibly be an engineer. In response, she posted her photo with the hashtag and encouraged others to do the same. The hashtag is now being used in campaigns to broaden everyone’s idea of what an engineer can look like.
To conclude — women should be able to speak their mind and be taken seriously, without having to play down their femininity. So ladies — join me. Let’s be straightforward, pretty and smart.