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Being a Female Student in Tech

Writes Roisin O’Donnell

Several months ago, I wrote a Feature titled ‘Is the Standard for Women in Tech Dropping?’. In the article, I highlighted my experiences with women in tech talks and only touched on what can make or break a ‘woman in tech’ – the college experience. This article will be based solely on my experiences as a Digital Humanities and Information Technology student and the stories of the people I know.

But first things first, I am not a ‘woman in tech’. I am a person just like thousands of others passionate about her course and entering this ever-evolving field. I am a person who loves and is fascinated by data, visualisation, machine learning and is ready to follow my interests wherever they lead me. The phrase ‘women in tech’ has followed me before college. In transition year, I was introduced to the phrase- always mentioned in a positive way and a smile- at the 2016 iWish conference.

Do I appreciate other females in tech? Yes. Power to them. I am proud to be a woman in my industry. But the phrase is confusing. There are so many types of women in tech. At that same iWish conference, I thought women in tech were unreachable, something beyond me, they were scientists. I hadn’t really found my niche in secondary school. Science, maths and business weren’t for me. In the mid-2010s, technology was not something that crossed my mind. It made sense with my typical Irish background. I had grown up going to a Catholic primary school where computers were used for Microsoft Word and Paint. God, carrying the one in maths and the Irish language was the base of everything. Secondary school’s take on technology was not much different. My login for the computers did not work for much of secondary school and when it did the focus was on what the perfect CV bullet point Microsoft Office Specialist.

I ended up as a person in technology by one correct choice and some luck. I chose my tech course because I liked the look of my computer screen, I liked helping people with their computer problems and I liked English but did not want to study it completely. The tech courses of CIT and UCC entrance requirements seemed to speak to my purely arts Leaving Cert. So Digital humanities clicked. Surprisingly, its tech side more than Arts. It served as my gentle introduction to technology.

Digital Humanities is not just about solving problems it is also about discussing out loud what tech’s implications are on the world and what is out there to play our problem-solving sidekick. Slowly my college education built from WordPress to using programming languages to create my own website and databases. From ‘hello world’ to spending hours on programs that help me gather new knowledge. Like right now I have a program that calculates how many words need to be written for this edition of Features based on submissions and what Molly intends on writing.

But it isn’t all roses. I am unbelievably lucky to have a group of female friends in my course but that does not stop the feeling of being an outlier sometimes creeping in. There are two ends of the spectrum of being female and in tech. On one there are people telling you that you are special, and some uncontrollable factor makes you better. And on the other end people say and encourage you to just stick to Arts or teaching. This is very apparent especially on the computer science side of my course.

When I go to women in tech talks everything is soft, nurturing almost cuddly. Whereas right now, for example, I am planning on going to a programming workshop, but I keep getting an anxious feeling. It stems from the thought that I might be the only woman in a room of 200 guys, that someone will make a comment and attention for the wrong reason will be drawn on me. I have nothing against men in tech. Keep the men there just add in some female faces into the bunch to let me know that I am not alone. As probably archaic as it sounds in 2020 gender does matter.

Without the constant companionship of my four female friends in my course dealing with this would be a lot harder in daily college life. Some of the older male professors, sometimes make comments.

This of course does not apply to all of them, some of them are absolute inspirations to me and were key in encouraging my interest in technology (i.e. a certain bearded character, every tech student probably knows who I am referring to). But that does not make up completely for the discomfort I sometimes feel. At the start of semester two, a lecturer, jokingly said to the class, ‘I will check the girls’ projects first so they can get home before it gets dark’. I can’t imagine how worse my discomfort would have been if I did not have my group of friends glaring back at him along with me. Or when another lecturer claimed that girls can see more colours than men because we are fussier. Or when one asked jokingly, ‘Am I a pervert?’. Or that great time when a lecturer asked my friend if her boyfriend got her her work placement. Shocking written down, I know. But said out loud it feels like just another day in these individuals’ class. We glare, feel uncomfortable and get on with things. We want to be good at what we do therefore we continue to absorb all the course knowledge these men have to give us and don’t address discomfort because we don’t want to even chance a points reduction in our assignments.

The lack of female lecturers is apparent but when one comes along especially in the programming aspect of our course there is nothing more encouraging than seeing someone who’s made it. Someone who knows her stuff, is good at it and takes no shit. As small as it may seem to other students it is great to see someone on a daily basis and talk to her. It is living proof that we can be ourselves and not just our gender in tech.

I do not believe in the current climate this cycle in my college life is going to end. Just slapping ‘women in tech’ onto outliers is not going to promote change. We need to focus on considering men and women as not being in two different camps when it comes to tech but just tech people. Courses can be joined, women are interested and the encouragement is there. The only thing that is truly bridging the integration of women into tech is the dividing line of genders.