Many girls grow up with a negative association about those in the technology industry. Tech geeks have an image problem. The stereotypical geek is a guy with thick glasses and a pocket protector, and those who work heavily in IT are believed to live in a solitary, antisocial world—not very appealing images for a young girl. There are not enough role models around them to show that these stereotypes are not true. Or perhaps those that are around are not highlighted or showcased enough.
Fear of the unknown is also one of the great barriers for women and girls, especially in technology. I was not always a technology expert. In fact, 12 years ago, I didn't even know how to turn on a computer and 15 years ago, I didn't speak any English. (I moved to the United States from Tajikistan, a former Republic of the Soviet Union in 1992.)
The first time I turned on a computer was in a college Computer Science 101 class. The first day of class I was confused, disoriented, and disheartened. It was as though, once again, I was in a "new country" where I had to learn a "new language." Nothing was familiar. I was sitting in front of the computer just looking at it, embarrassed at the fact that I didn't even know how to turn it on! I looked over at the guy next to me and saw where he pressed to turn his computer on… I quickly, but very casually, pressed the same button on my computer and turned my computer on, too. But I hit another big roadblock because I didn't know what was on the screen. Again, I watched the guy next to me and he was typing something really fast. I thought to myself, "He must be really smart."
We then proceeded to try to apply what we learned in the lecture hall to the computers. I was too afraid to ask a question or to tell the professor that I didn't understand what we needed to do because I didn't want anyone to think I was stupid. I became really discouraged and scared. I even considered dropping the class.
But I have never been one to give up very easily. I was not going to be defeated by this and I decided to stick with it. I even decided that I was going to get an A in the class, no matter what it took. I went to all the classes, did all of the homework, studied on my own, asked a lot of questions, and I did what I had set out to do. I received an A in Computer Science 101.
As I progressed through the curriculum, I embraced the challenges that every class presented. I excelled to the point that eventually my classmates started coming to me for help, even the guy whom I had thought earlier to be really smart. I loved the challenge so much and worked with such determined focus that I was able to complete my Bachelor's of Science degree with a minor in Mathematics in three years instead of the standard four!
When I started my career, I was lucky to have had many positive role models. I entered the technology field in 1996, just as the Internet craze was hitting its stride and I landed a job at Webgrrls International. Their mission has been to get more women online. Our office was full of technically savvy women from whom I could learn; and learn I did. I am now the CTO of Webgrrls International and the Founder of DigitalWoman.com. Webgrrls International has an outreach program called Team Webgrrls. We go into the inner-city to get girls excited about technology and show them how fun it can be. One of these sessions showcased the different career possibilities in Technology. We had a "career fair" at the Mercy Center for Women and Girls in the Bronx and, as I was talking about my career path, being a geek, and how cool it was, one of the girls said to me "But you don't wear thick glasses!" She now has a different perspective of what being a geek means. It is with pleasure that I am a geek. I love technology and I live it; and, hopefully, I can be that role model that other girls need so much.
We need to change the geek stereotype and start showcasing that geek girls are the hip and cool people in society. We are driving society, creating the tools for the musicians, artists, actors, humanitarians, scientists, and doctors. If more girls knew the broader picture of the technology applications, I believe they would be intrigued to be a part of it. I became an expert at computers and technology by not being intimidated by new information and not giving up just because I did not know something.
My advice to anyone wanting to join in on the fun:
The career opportunities for women in IT are endless. Dig in and don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Webgrrls International, of course, and The Girls, Math & Science Partnership whose "mission is to engage, educate, and embrace girls as architects of change."
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