.... says my 5 year old niece whilst discussing her peers. What followed next was a good 5-10 mins serious debate on why girls are pretty and boys are smart according to this 5 year old (Mind you, women in my family, irrespective of age or generation, comes with a strong opinions of their own.) Let me tell you about this kiddo. My niece is fluent in three languages (English, French, Assamese), does ballet, has a knack for painting and will probably master the guitar someday too soon and yet, she feels the boys in her class are smarter than her. Reason being, her girl friends (all 4-5 year olds) convinced that girls should only look pretty and do stuff to stay pretty. So when I pointed out that girls can be both smart and pretty, her counter reply was - "But you can't call boys pretty, can you??" Clearly, she has not heard the likes of Justin Bieber.
But jokes apart, it got me to thinking - if this how baby girls are brought up, how can we expect overcome gender inequality in technology?
I have been recently following Y combinator co-founder Paul Graham's interview and the brouhaha it created about his statement on why 13 year old girls should get engaged to coding. And this is where this guy gets it wrong. To get 13 year old girls interested in computers one needs to check the eco-system the girl was raised in. Secondly, don't set the bar of learning at 13 - its horribly demotivating for girls and women of other ages!
Lets start with the eco-system. What I have seen, especially in the West, is that from the moment a girl child is born she is associated with the color pink holistically to the point that its nauseating. With Indian girl babies (atleast in my generation), I have observed that this pink mayhem was much less. Of course we all played "house" and other girly games at some point, but equal stress was also given to learn math and science. Maybe its a family thing, or maybe something cultural that society expects you to be- whatever it is, India definitely has a good amount of women in technology. However, its not discrimination free zone, and I shall talk about it a bit later.
Now, there is nothing wrong with the idea of "pretty in pink", and I bet social scientists can confirm that color pink has nothing to do with general intelligence level of a woman. However, the idea of playing with a doll and then the societal pressure of being just a doll, is definitely questionable in the mental growth of a girl child. Why playing with the plastic, anorexic "Barbie" more popular among little girls than solving puzzle games, or building toys like GoldieBlox? Why doesn't the popular pop-culture make teenage boys think that brainy teenage girls who take math/computer science are hot and dateable? Speaking of tech majors in college, I have witnessed how engineering women students, especially from hard engineering like mechanical or chemical, are often demeaned to be unsexy. Derogatory terms like "she-males" have also been used in such situations. Eventually these women who undergo such humiliations will end up discouraging their daughters to take up technology related education. And that is so wrong! Smart is the new sexy! I mean look at the list of amazing role model women engineers. My personal favorite is Radha Basu, maybe because I have met her, spoken with her and definitely believe in her cause. I think having someone to look up to or can relate to in the field of technology, definitely helps.
Another way is, to encourage participation in technology-related events to showcase one's intelligence in the field of technology. During my first Startup Weekend last November, what I witnessed was the low intake of women participants - couple of them with business expertise but very less women developers. This year I am organizing Startup Weekend in Leuven with fellow startup enthusiasts, and I am looking forward to more women participants, and even higher number of women developers!
I think its important that women, all women, irrespective of age and culture, should be encouraged to learn about technology, start startups, etc. But most importantly, she should be encouraged to accept and acknowledge her intelligence and her capability. Most of the times, women feel that they don't deserve success and are apologetic about it. Don't be sorry for being smart! You are your biggest cheerleader, whether in business or in life, so you must be confident and proud of your capabilities. And not chock up your success to luck. I believe women of ALL ages can master their technical skills, do bad ass things developing the technology, and show the whole world that women and girls can rock the tech world, and still look
pretty hot in pink!