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It’s Time to Change One of Utah’s Tech Traditions

Utah State Office of Education: ‘Programming / Software Development is Nontraditional for Females

In her recent HBO special, titled “We Are Miracles,” comic Sarah Silverman deftly addressed the issue of gender bias and how it affects young, impressionable girls by using awe-inspiring logic in this memorable bit:

“Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would have never occurred to them they couldn’t.

“You’re planting that seed in their heads. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, when you get in the shower, I’m not going to read your diary.’

“’Hold on. Are you going to read my diary?’

“’What? Are you crazy? I just said I’m not going to read your diary. Get in the shower!’”

It’s no secret that the tech and startup scene here in Utah, and throughout the country, is predominantly controlled by males. While there are many organizations — such as Lean In, which was founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — that have committed to assist women by offering support and inspiration to help them achieve their goals, as a society, and more specifically, as a tech community, there’s still a lot more work to be done.

So, what’s the plan? How can we solve this problem of inequality and gender bias within the tech community here in Utah?

“I wish there was a really good plan,” said Sara Dansie Jones, co-Founder of the Women Tech Council and CEO and Founder at KōDefy, in a phone interview with Beehive Startups. “The challenge is we have to change an entire culture that’s existed for so long. It’s going to take some time.”

Is it possible the Utah State Office of Education is only exacerbating the problem? Consider this document, obtained by Beehive Startups, that is handed out to Utah children to help them choose a college and career path:

Young girls in Utah, who may be interested in pursuing a career in technology, are exposed to the words “nontraditional for females” under the headline “Programming / Software Development is:” on a document designed to help children pick an area of study.

In our interview, Jones recalled bringing the phrase “nontraditional for females” to the attention of the directors of the Utah Career Technology Education department.

“I raised my hand in front of the CTE directors and said, ‘Do we really need it to say nontraditional for females?’ They were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even notice that was on there.’ That’s the problem right there. It’s just a complete lack of awareness.

“We’re not messaging technology careers in a way that makes sense to high school girls. Our schools do a horrific job of marketing careers to kids. The guidance counselors are not trained to understand what these career pathways look like. Somewhere somebody’s got to fix the current system of marketing career opportunities to our children. Right now they’re getting a very dry, boring look at technology career tracks.”

The use of the word “nontraditional” to describe women programmers and software engineers may be nothing more than a poor marketing strategy, or just an odd way to classify careers dominated by a certain gender. Academic studies on the issue, however, would disagree with such an assumption. A research and policy brief released this past June by the Utah Women & Education Initiative provides some insight. Here’s an excerpt from their report:

Cultural and social factors lead to negative stereotypes that affect academic choices and performance levels for girls as early as elementary school. Incorrect assumptions include beliefs that boys are better in math and more suited to scientific work.

In addition, girls frequently receive less encouragement, have fewer role models, and believe they will appear “geeky” if they like math and science. The biggest misconception may be that young women often believe they do not have the innate ability to succeed. When young women do decide to enter STEM programs, they often lack confidence and feel intimidated in male-dominated courses.

Jones believes we’re not reaching out to young girls here in Utah soon enough to educate them on the benefits of working in the technology field.

“For as much as K-12 says, ‘We believe in STEM,’ they don’t always believe that includes computer science, or the opportunity to expose girls to coding. And that’s a travesty, because our young women are so good at languages at a young age. That’s when they will learn easiest; and that’s when we actually miss that phase of opportunity for them to be exposed to it. So, they typically don’t get exposed until they’re in high school, or even past that.”

Does Utah’s unique cultural dynamic play a role in the lack of support for young females to enter the technology arena?

“I’ll go to a group of teenage girls here in Utah and say, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Most of them will say they want to be a mother,” said Jones. “That’s because that’s what they’ve heard they’re supposed to be. And I’ll say, ‘Well, I’m a mom, too. And that’s awesome. I love being a mom.’ But they don’t hear how to combine any other dream that they might have with how to be a mother at the same time.

“For example, let’s say you’re a young Utah woman in college. You get married, your husband goes to school, and you hear, ‘Well, your priorities should be putting him through school.’ That’s a very strong message within certain demographics here in Utah. It makes it really hard for women to say, ‘But wait a minute. I have a dream. I want to finish school, too.’

“At Women Tech Council, we’ve shifted our mentorship, and directed it toward women entering years one and two of college to say, ‘What are your challenges?’

“The challenges young women face here in Utah are not all about, ‘I got married and I want to support my husband, but still finish school.’ That’s actually only one of the issues. Another issue we deal with is simply finding support. They ask us, ‘Where are the other women who can help support me throughout my career? Where’s the role models?’ Gender bias is another issue a lot of these young women will experience within university programs. So, there’s a whole range of issues. Any one of which might cause a woman to not pursue a STEM degree.”

Women Tech Council, which is based in Salt Lake City, was founded in 2007 to bring mentoring, visibility, and networking to Utah women who currently work, or want to work, in technology.

“Women Tech Council is not an organization that believes that it’s just about women networking with women. It’s really important for us to partner with men,” explained Jones. “One of the things we want to make happen is when it comes to opening up opportunities for women, we want men to be a part of that conversation.

“We want more men to get involved. We want to partner with anyone who supports women in technology. We see a win-win when both women and men are collaborating with each other, and building a really strong community that supports the technology ecosystem here in Utah.”

We have a lot of traditions here in Utah. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the one that’s causing an unnecessary and undeserved burden on women who want to become valuable, equal members of our tech community.

Published 12/2/2013