My mom is a software engineer, I’m a software engineer, my sister is studying to be a software engineer. The first video game I ever played was written for me by my mom and dad. I grew up with computers, and I knew from a very young age I was going to be a software engineer.
But it was still a pretty telling moment when one of my fellow women-in-engineering jokingly told our customer that “we have male engineers, too.” It’s hilarious, but it really shouldn’t be.
I grew up in Silicon Valley, which means that I had a number of advantages that other people didn’t have – such as having a computer and Internet access long before most people. Now those technologies are ubiquitous, with tablets and phones bringing the technology into every home, but I don’t see that making a big difference in who becomes engineers. Increasingly those technologies are created to make people the consumers of devices, instead of tinkerers. Technology has become something to own, not something to understand.
The greater advantage that I had growing up here is the culture. Before we had the culture of startups, IPOs, and get-rich-quick, we had the culture of smart people solving hard problems. I grew up knowing that engineering can be interesting and fulfilling – and not just the domain of some group of socially-awkward men. Many places do not have this culture – and without it, you don’t have women engineers, or engineers in general.
I had a struggle with culture shock when I moved to London. Just one example is when a man flat out exited the conversation when I mentioned the words “space robots.” It wasn’t because he was afraid of the concept, or really had anything much to say about it – he was just suddenly categorizing me as a nerd, and uninteresting. In Silicon Valley, this elicits the exact opposite response, regardless of whether people are thinking of the Mars Rover or Skynet.
In the UK, a lot of engineering is categorized under the umbrella of IT, and I think this says something about the culture. There’s a certain smugness that City types have when thinking about the nerds who do that infrastructure stuff. It’s as though they control the big picture while their IT staff just provide some help to allow them to achieve their goals (i.e., get rich).
Some places I’ve worked are even more surprising – either in how they regard technology, or how they regard women in technology. Some places were better than I expected, some worse. But I know that we can do better, even here in Silicon Valley. Women need to know that they can be engineers, that they can be good engineers, and that they can enjoy it. It’s one way to shape the world that we are building for ourselves, instead of just consuming what others produce.