Opinion: The value of talking to girls about technology
To boost the number of women in technology, first we need to treat girls interested in tech as normal, and stop forcing them to make a false choice between girliness and geekdom.
"Mama, can we play that?" my 5-year-old daughter asked, pointing to an image of Pokemon Go on the internet.
"I don’t think so, honey. I am not a huge fan of how much privacy you have to give up," I said.
"What's privacy, mama?"
That's not an easy question to answer. I'm a computer scientist, not a philosopher. So, instead of explaining privacy principles, I started with the basics of the tech – the elements of information gathering and data tracking. And then how technology can sometimes take away someone's privacy.
"Oh no, is my friend going to be OK without her privacy," she asked, before starting to play with her princess dolls again.
This may not be a normal conversation in most households, but it's the kind of talk that's common in mine. And, hopefully, talking to girls about technology – regardless of their age – will become the norm, part of everyday conversation everywhere.
All too often, we brush-off girls' interests in tech at moments in their lives when curiosity about the subject is starting to take shape. Even when many of us in the computer industry encounter women in the field, we treat them as aberrations. But it's that kind of cultural response that contributes to the significant lack of women in science, math, and technology fields. To reverse that trend, we need to start early when it comes to talking to girls about tech.
When I was growing up, my interest in technology and science never seemed abnormal. My mom is a NASA engineer. One of my grandmothers had a successful career as an engineer, too, and the other one was a neurologist. My grandfather lauded the importance of math. My family seemed to expect that I would become an engineer or mathematician.
I'm often asked how I chose my field and how I managed to remain in technology. In large part, I point to the fact that the choices I made early in life didn't seem unusual – it didn't feel like I was breaking any taboos. I also never thought that being “girly” was somehow incompatible with, or even related to, being "geeky."
In some ways, I attribute that outlook to my early upbringing in the Soviet Union before my family immigrated to the US when I was 12. There just didn't seem to be any connection to gender and interest in science, math, or engineering. You could be a geek and a girl – and no one seemed to care. (This isn't an endorsement of any policies of the USSR.)
But in the US, there seems to be this false choice that our girls are pressured to make early in their lives – they either have to opt for the path toward geekdom or head down the pink-laden aisles of Barbies and glittery fashion accessories.
Even the efforts to boost the number of women in cybersecurity are often framed in terms of "girls don’t like hacking and coding, so let’s include them in nontechnical aspects." While cybersecurity is an interdisciplinary endeavor and requires contributions from all perspectives, somehow making the case that men should do the programming and women should focus on the interface or the social science in the field seems limiting for both genders.
Currently, women make up less than 20 percent of the cybersecurity workforce. That number is even lower in many university computer science programs. When I was a computer science undergraduate at Cornell University, it was about 10 percent and in the past two decades that ratio has barely improved.
To improve those numbers – and get more women in the tech workforce and cybersecurity in particular – it's time to make it normal to talk to girls about technology. Girl geeks shouldn't be treated as aberrations. And, frankly, they shouldn't be forced to choose between two things aren't even related.
As my 5-year-old likes to say, "Mama knows fashion and math, dada knows physics, and I know fashion, math, and physics.”
Nadya T. Bliss is the director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University. Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics is a unit of GSI. Follow her on Twitter @nadyabliss.