Just about every day, I see a new article or news story about getting women and minorities interested in tech careers. Why is it that tech jobs still seem like a big secret that only white males are in on? In my opinion, it's a simple failure of imagination.
When I went to see Madeline Albright speak last year, she said something that really stuck with me. She was talking about her surprise when President Clinton asked her to be Secretary of State. "I never dreamed I'd be Secretary of State," she said. "Not because I didn't have ambition, but because I'd never seen one in a skirt."
So check that out. Madeline Freaking Albright (not her real middle name) had never seen a female Secretary of State so she never imagined it would happen for her. I think the same thing is happening in the tech world. To succeed in diversifying the tech workforce, we need to be able to imagine a future where a software development team with 10 people on it actually includes non-Asian minorities. And 4-6 women. Even minority women. I can imagine that, but I have to confess it takes some effort because I have never seen it.
So why does it matter if we can envision more women and minorities in tech? When you don't look like someone's stereotype, they usually either ignore you or ask you to prove yourself. This is tiring and erodes enthusiasm. You're also less likely to get new opportunities or even be encouraged to enter into a tech career in the first place if people just assume you wouldn't be interested, or worse, if they think you wouldn't be capable.
Here's a good example: Jesse and I were chatting with a guy we met at a party. He asked what we do for a living and we both answered that we were programmers. The guy immediately turned so that his shoulders were squared on Jesse, thereby blocking me out of the conversation, and said, "Really? My friend/cousin/bartender needs a web site. Is that something you do?" That has happened on more than one occasion.
What's up with that? Was the guy just a total jerk? Probably not. The woman who once told me to "shut up, you look too cute right now to be that big of a nerd!" was a jerk. But to the guy at the party, I just don't look like a programmer. Never mind that I have been building websites since 1997. Never mind that I have nearly a decade more experience than Jesse, who went back to school in his 30s. People are hard-wired to make assumptions based on appearance, and I want us to change those assumptions.
It's important to note that women also suffer from this failure of imagination. A woman once asked me what I do for a living and when I told her I was a software engineer, she took a step back. She physically moved away from me as though fearing a contagious disease. This has also happened more than once. It's especially weird when a whole group of people moves away from you. These are probably just gestures of surprise, but when the phrase, "I am a programmer" gets the same reaction as "I am a leper," it has an impact.
So the shift I'd like to see is that we start believing women and minorities when they say they know how to write code/configure your network/fix your computer/whatever, or at least stop being so surprised by it. Also, when young people are casting about for a direction to start their careers, we certainly shouldn't steer them away from tech jobs based on their appearance—these are great jobs that pay well!
The recent movement to encourage more diversity in tech careers is great. Is it possible to speed this up just by using our imaginations to picture what success looks like? I hope so. I hope we all start now so that eventually, we won't have to use our imaginations at all: we'll be able to just look around.