Tech: genuinely intimidating for women or are they nurtured to believe so?

Having been born and raised in Nepal where women only enjoy their freedom when it’s safe for them to enjoy, USA seemed like a utopia to us; based on the movies we watched and stories we heard. We imagined USA to be a place where women did what they wanted to do, every individual was tucked under the warm blanket of justice and per capita income was high enough to keep everyone happy. My stay in USA for the past three weeks revealed the contrary. I discovered that gender discrimination still persists in here and so does every other problems of a growing nation, perhaps in a more subtle form.

My curiosity began after reading an appalling fact in the book, ‘Women in Tech’ by Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack. She writes, “In 1984, 38 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women; in 2014, less than 10 percent were.” However, that is not how it is in the sector of biology at all! Comparatively 47.6% of medical graduates in 2015 in the United States were female, which is almost half.

So what is happening here? Why aren’t women pursuing a degree in a lucrative sector like tech and why is the rate decreasing every year? The facts are open for many interpretations. Nonetheless it’s pretty clear that there are forces outside the control of women that has been dragging them away from this career in the United States.

During my conversation with a Vietnamese student studying at University of Washington named Nhung Le, she reveals that back in her country, even though people seemed to promote equality, they still held the stereotypical view that women should only pursue certain career paths.

“I remember when I was young, I quite enjoyed studying math and physics. But my mother insisted that biology was a better option for me; she wanted me to be a pharmacist. So I ended up taking biology for my undergrad. It’s not that I regret taking biology because I very much enjoy the subject but it’s also true that my parents shaped my career in some way or the other,” says 22 year old Nhung.

I could not have agreed with Nhung any less. Girls and boys are raised differently and they eventually turn out to have a different attitude towards subjects.

Ruchika Tulshyan, author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace elaborates on that. “Many girls are encouraged to play with dolls etc. while boys are told they can “build” things and “make” things. Just look at toys for boys versus girls! It also shows up in many schools, where girls are socialized to believe they aren’t “good” at this. Lastly, there is a lot more pressure on girls to be perfect and excel — so more feel uncomfortable raising their hands in classes that they’ve already been conditioned to believe that they are inferior in,” explains Ruchika.

Swetha Kannan, another student at University of Washington, who is doing her masters in electrical engineering, shares of instances when people have become shocked upon revealing that she is pursuing engineering, “The number of female students in technology is visibly low in the United States. I have attended classes where I have been the only woman.”

Swetha too feels that technical stuffs like coding, programming and everything computer-related is seen as a ‘male’ thing. That could be the explanation for why so many women hesitate to pursue a career in this apparently masculine field, she says.

Swetha Kannan
Swetha Kannan
Nhung Le
Nhung Le

A slightly different explanation for this phenomenon could be what Reshma Saujani, an American lawyer and politician perceives as ‘putting too much expectations on women.’ “Women have been socialized to aspire for perfection which makes them socially cautious. That socialization to perfection has causes us to take less risk in our careers,” she says during her Ted Talk: Teach Girls Bravery not Perfection.

I could relate to everything that Reshma was saying. Growing up I remember watching all those movies with lead actresses (some of whom were my role models) ranking first in their classes. I remember how some of my teachers told me that they hadn’t expected a girl to be so reckless and mischievous. I did feel the pressure to be perfect because I was a girl.

There might not be one easy explanation for why so few women graduate in computer sciences and engineering every year. However, if we are to fix this problem, we might have to start right at the process of socialization because all needles point towards that direction. Perhaps we should start increasing our young girls’ exposure towards technology and encourage them to try it out more often. But first, we need to change our attitude and stop gendering subjects.

This story was produced by a student in the “Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI)” program, a collaboration between The Seattle Globalist and FIUTS, supported by the U.S. Department of State. The program brings 20 undergraduates from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Nepal to Seattle. Participants study journalism and new media, and participate in volunteer and service activities, leadership workshops, and cultural excursions. The story is an example of student work and has not yet been through the Seattle Globalist’s standard editing and fact-checking process.