Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer: the Good, the Bad, and the Not Quite Sure

Summer can be an odd time. I had been been thinking I would write a new post when something interesting came along. I realized today that my understanding of interesting was skewed. There have been a lot of very very interesting things happening. Lots of events worth pondering and taking action on. Good or bad, it's all interesting and more importantly, we are immersed in opportunities to drive change.

The Bad: The tech world has been awash in one media report after another revealing poor diversity numbers and overt and subtle (yet highly damaging) acts of sexism and discrimination. It seems that at least once a day something comes across a major media outlet about the latest painful situation. The vitriolic responses that fill the Comment sections accompanying these articles are unbelievable. The seemingly ceaseless flood of stories and reaction has been painful evidence that something is structurally very very wrong.

All this makes me, along with many other people, sick. And yeah, like a lot of women in tech, I can relate personally to some of these stories. Yet, in another way I'm relieved (?) when I see the barrage of headlines. Part of me thinks "it's about time this stuff came out into the mainstream media" and therefore the more I read, the more I think that perhaps now, it will be harder for some people to pretend discrimination and harassment don't happen, are isolated incidents, somehow the fault of the woman involved, "not my problem", exaggerated etc. So maybe the media reports are good?


The Good For Sure: On the other hand, the surge in media reports surrounding girls getting involved in tech, via coding, conferences, meetups, and hackathons is wonderful. The widespread positive attention being given to these initiatives is long overdue. Isolated events for girls and women in tech have been around for a long time. Not only are there a lot more of them now, but people beyond the usual suspects are jumping on board. We need that because we need to reach a critical mass in order to achieve cultural shift.

I'd like to see this enthusiasm for encouraging women to learn computer science and consider careers in computing result in more long term sustained efforts. For example, as I've mentioned in the past, what happens after the tech camp? the hackathon? the intro online coding class? the celebration? We need to morph that Hour of Code into a Week, Season, Year of Code - and beyond.


More Good: Earlier this month I was at Bryn Mawr College* in the capacity of External Evaluator on an NSF funded project that is introducing introductory computer science through the use of digital art. A group of high school and college teachers, men and women, were learning how to use Processing; they discussed pedagogical and technological issues surrounding teaching with this Java based language. As with other Processing workshops I have observed, the level of enthusiasm was unusually high - people routinely tried to work through breaks and dawdled at their computers when it was lunch time. Collegiality and mutual support were running high.

Really Good (and oodles of fun): During a workshop break I intentionally "got lost" in one of the oldest buildings on the Bryn Mawr campus, stumbling around dark, stone walled basement corridors lit only by my cell phone. Many of these buildings are architecturally inspired by English medieval castles, complete with gargoyles of owls reading books. At one point, I popped out into daylight in a Cloister containing  personal and often emotionally worded plaques dedicated to deceased alumnae. Late 19th Century and early 20th Century Philadelphia was clearly teeming with Bryn Mawr women breaking barriers in law, the sciences, politics. Walking around reading these weathered and stained narratives,which were not at all like the usual "in memory of" blurbs, I was reminded yet again of the power and potential of safe, supportive environments where women and girls can come into their own.


The Future is Now: This weekend I'm attending a retreat that centers on team building and communication among a group of scientists, engineers and artists working on sustainability issues. Women and men who care about building bridges among people and disciplines. Out in the desert, far away from the usual technology. Other than 5am yoga, I'm not really sure what I'm in for but it sounds like an opportunity for doing good.

Summer is indeed a time for reflection and taking action.

*Bryn Mawr College is a women's college founded in 1885.

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