WeCode and Visceral Education

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Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the WeCode┬áconference run by the Harvard Undergraduate Women in Computing group. It was a great event; well-organized, well-attended, and far more interesting than the “OMG, Goldman Sachs was giving out nail files with their logo, how insensitive” meme that seems to have gone rampant on news sites that should know better. I was there to moderate a set of panels, but decided to attend most of the Saturday event to see what it was like.

The first keynote was in one of the large lecture theaters in the Science Center. When I walked in, there were probably 200 conference goers in their seats, and more were streaming in. I took three or four steps into the hall, and it suddenly hit me. I was one of may two or three men in the hall. I’ve never been accused of being shy, but I felt completely out of place. Completely other. All of the voices in my head were saying “get out of here… go to your office and get some work done…”. All the flight responses were active.

And at the same time, I was realizing that this is the feeling everyone else in the room must have at every other tech conference in the world, or in most computer science classes, or tech gatherings in general. It was a Zen experience. I suddenly felt that I had a better understanding of what women in computer science (and the STEM fields more generally) are up against.

I’ve tried to be a supporter of women in software positions all my life. My groups at Sun always had women software engineers, and my closest collaborator over most of my career was a woman. I’ve tried to encourage women in my classes. The last edition of my privacy course was 2/3rds female (a fact that one of the male students complained about; his complaint was an opportunity for a discussion of these issues which I hope had some impact). But I’ve never felt the problem the way I did last Saturday.

I’ll admit I’m not sure what to do about this. But it is a problem, not just of fairness and justice, but for the field. We need good people in software engineering, computer science, and related fields. The supply of any kind of people can’t keep up with the demand, and the supply of good people isn’t even close. Artificially limiting the supply of talent to half the population is insane, destructive, and wrong. Changing this will be hard, because not everyone understands. I thought I understood, but I didn’t really. I don’t fully understand now, but I’ve had a good lesson. It’s amazing how much more effective a lesson is when it arrives through the emotions instead of the brain.

I’m still thinking about the experience. But I know I won’t think about women’s issues in the STEM field in the same way. For that reason alone, the WeCode conference may have been the most educational I’ve ever attended.

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1 Comment »

  1. Linda Lee

    February 17, 2014 @ 3:37 am

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    A friend pointed out this posting to me, and it caught my eye because I attended the same talks, and posted the following comment on another thread about my reaction, as a female software developer, to that very same meeting.
    ——————–
    I went to the conference as a mentor, and had a great time connecting to some pretty impressive young women. It struck me that it was absolutely the first time I had ever sat in Science Center C with a room full of mostly women (a few men were in the back row). In fact, it was the first time in 30 years that I’d ever been at any large meeting in the software world — classes, work meetings, conferences — where the ratio of men to women wasn’t somewhere around 4:1. I was also struck, alas, at how many women, even in this self-selected group, came in talking about reasons not to become software developers, when, IMHO, software has got to be one of most fun professions around. I’m thinking/hoping that the conference helped tip/change the way a number of attendees were heading.

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