Girls Who Code: Creating a New Wave of Cyberfeminists?

By Gabby Bess

Though it seems like feminism has finally found an apt platform online, with Twitter serving as the equivalent of 1960s Feminist Conscious Raising times a thousand, in November of last year when Twitter went public and its board members were revealed they were (predictably) all white men. With the set of Silicon Valley being compared to the mafia, “the tech world” – if it exists as a finite, outwardly defined space – is still dominated and characterized by masculinity, despite the increasing awareness of a need for diversity. Due to systemic feminization of certain fields over others, women typically aren’t socialized to pursue STEM careers, leaving more than enough of an excuse for women to be excluded from the tech elite. To correct this discrepancy and encourage young girls early on, sites like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code provide resources to teach girls programming skills. These organizations promote intensive camps and summer immersion programs to foster an interest in STEM topics, hopefully preparing them for a career in the field. The stake in this push for young, cyberfeminists is representation.

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As we all become technology-fluent cyborgs, using our existence online as an extension of our physical selves, the most critical language to learn isn’t spoken. Knowledge of programming languages like Java, PHP, and Python not only indicate who will be able to create and influence culture and who will be able to shape historical records, but who will be able to exist. The agency to write one’s own history is the agency to be visible. This feminist archiving is crucial. “This is more than just a program. It’s a movement.” says the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani. To hold ground in the boys-club, Reshma – the former Deputy Public Advocate of New York City – advocates a new model of female leadership that is focused on risk-taking, competition and mentorship. Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, has a similar mission to help girls become tech creators and entrepreneurs.

Strictly in terms of formal education statistics, women have chosen – whether by passivity or expressed disinterest – to forgo pursuing Computer Science degrees. By the Numbers, a report compiled by The National Center for Women and Informational Technology reports bleak numbers when it comes to women in tech. In 2011, only 25% of the professional computing occupations in the US were held by women. Their report also indicates a steady decline in the percent of women who received Computer Science degrees from 37% in 1985 to 18% in 2010. This leaves everyone asking, where did all the women go? The Twitters of the world want women in tech, as diversity is linked to innovation, and the women – assumed by the number of articles written by and about them – want to be in tech, but what’s stopping them from going into engineering or computer programming? The fact remains that women do exist in “the tech world” but are largely invisible. They tend to gravitate toward less competitive cities, more social roles within tech companies, and form their own communities within “the tech world” at large. As for the few tech power women that visibly exist – such as Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo – they get eviscerated by the community at every turn and turned into blog fodder for tech gossip sites like Valley Wag, further exemplifying that tech culture is bro culture.

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In tandem with the dilemma that technologically savvy women are simply defecting from competitive start-up culture is the fact that the notion of a rigid path into “the tech world” has hardly ever been a reality for women. Historically, women have been excluded from these spaces and are charged with the task of disrupting them, not assimilating into them. In her essay, Why Are There No Great Women Net Artists? (after Linda Nochlin’s 1988 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?) Jennifer Chan states, “Cyberfeminists of the nineties sought to achieve equal technological footing to their male programming counterparts by ideologically infiltrating communication networks with sexually charged dissent. They posted their manifestos on mailing lists, message boards, and self-organized websites.”

Though outside of pursuing strict programming degrees, outside of “the tech world” in a strict sense, women – the women who may have used their ‘hacking’ skills to claim a seat on the board of Twitter – have come to view the internet as a means of radical assertion. Traditional cyberfeminist framework is optimistic in a woman’s place online as the resister. Cyberfeminist scholar Sadie Plant shares her vision of “women, computers, virtual reality, and cyberpace” as intimately linked and in this new, unclaimed space of the internet women have the power to dismantle the patriarchy. However, in its emphasis of resistance and assertion, this framework might be the problem. The internet is not and was never an unclaimed space. It exists and was born out of the culture of the white male, where early cyberfeminists had to fight to hold court. In its most essentialist form, the problem could be viewed in these terms: The woman in tech is concerned with the personal and legitimizing the self and the man in tech, secure in his identity online and in the world, does not seek out the internet as a place to assert his self. Not having to disrupt any existing framework, he is concerned with his next start-up venture selling to Facebook for 3 billion dollars. Along similar lines, Margolis and Fisher, summarized in the paper “A Cyberfeminist Utopia? Perceptions of Gender and Computer Science among Malaysian Women Computer Science Students and Faculty (Lagesen, 2008),” argued that these female coders are survivors of the Computer Science ‘boys club’ and ‘male hacker culture.’

This is not unlike any other field or traditional line of thought of what we have come to view as binary masculine and feminine modes of thinking through socialization. This systemic exclusion can hardly be corrected on an individual basis of realization. For every woman that becomes a Marissa Mayer and finds a tenuous place for herself in the valley of the bros, there are scores of women that don’t even view that as a possibility. Where Computer Science is not necessarily a gendered field, such as Malaysia, there is a large proportion of women in the field. In 2001, women in Malaysia constituted 52% of bachelor students in Computer Science. Lagasen argues that early educational programs played a large part in this. Specifically, the Malaysian government has promoted educational programs in STEM in the interest of post-colonial national unity and modernization.

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Early access and exposure have been identified as essential to changing the status quo for women in tech. Programs like Girls Who Code aim to disrupt the paradigm of STEM fields as masculinity, fostering attitudes of girls from a young age to view Computer Science as inclusionary. By providing access to coding knowledge coupled with career mentors, conferences and summer camps, they prepare girls early on for the possibilities of a high-powered job in “the tech world.” In the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, 95% of participants said they are “definitely or more likely” to consider a major or minor in Computer Science after participating in the program and 99% said they are pursuing a career in technology. Current stats project that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings but only enough qualified graduates to fill 29% of these jobs. In the face of these projections, STEM advocacy organizations that are focused on early educational reform and diversion are hopeful that more girls will be funneled into the field and retained.