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What living in a small town in CT has taught me about the future of technology

As one of the co-founders and now an advisor at Skillcrush, a site that is singularly focused on increasing technical skills in women of all ages, I have spent an enormous amount of time thinking about, and trying to find solutions to, the gender divide in technology. The reality is that it’s complicated.

There are complications derived from a society that still places girls and boys on different tracks at a very young age. I’ve seen this play out firsthand as a mother of two girls—ages 12 and 7. Girls are still pushed into dance, music and art, with some sports thrown in; boys are pushed into sports, math and science. Although there are certain geographic, socioeconomic, and cultural segments of the population where this is not the case, overall it is still true. And in some parts of the country, the biases are even more culturally ingrained and, thus, more intractable.

I have spent a significant amount of time in tech/media circles in NYC over the past 5 years, while living 2.5 hours away in a relatively affluent town on the CT coast. I can tell you that the divide between these two worlds is not just geographic, it is cultural.

Here, there are still a significant number of women who are stay-at-home mothers (a choice that I fully support). I know only a handful of people who are working in tech-related industries, let alone actually working as programmers. Culturally, technology is not part of the conversation; women still do the majority of household work; and there is a significant emphasis on traditional gender roles.

When I tell people that I started my MBA program at Yale the day after I got out of the hospital after giving birth to my second child because I actually WANTED to work, they look at me askance. When I tell them that I spent the past year teaching myself front-end web development, at the age of 40, because I wanted to be in control of building my own websites, they look at me like I’m crazy. When I admit that I’m a feminist who started a site to help women learn to code, oy, don’t even talk to me about it. And remember, I’m not living in a small town in rural VT with limited access to the internet and one computer in each school. I’m living in a highly-educated, relatively affluent town that is 20 minutes away from one of the greatest educational institutions in the world. Hardly podunk.

Why does this matter? Because changing these institutionalized biases is a Herculean task. Although I love (really, love, love, love!) what the awesome women at Goldieblox and Girls Who Code and Hopscotch and even Skillcrush are doing, there are still so many cultural biases that need to be broken down to foster adoption of these products and increase the number of girls and women in tech. These companies are a great start, but only a start.

Without a parent who decides to pick up GoldieBlox for her daughter instead of a Bratz doll; who decides to enroll her daughter in after-school programming clubs instead of signing her up for dance classes; who tells her daughter that she should be focusing on math as much as she’s focusing on music; and, who stands up for her daughter when other parents (of both sexes) ask her why she is obsessed with electronics (which happens, trust me, I’ve seen it), we will get nowhere. Without female role models who are present in their communities and proactively talking about their love of technology and their jobs, we will get nowhere. Without more senior level women in technology and tech-related industries who are in the news representing the possible, we will get nowhere.

And, here is where Paul Graham comes into play. The tenor of Paul Graham’s comments—whether they fully reflect his actual sentiment–are relevant because he is in a position of power in the tech ecosystem. He has a microphone, a broad audience, and access to a pipeline of young talent across a range of technology-related disciplines. Many people (although arguably not all) who are part of the next generation of tech leadership listen to him. His biased views on gender and on age and on race get magnified by those who follow his gospel and spread it within their own networks.

For example, his insistence on perpetuating the myth of the young entrepreneur is even reflected in the Taylor Rose post on Medium that is being circulated.

“Unfortunately, there are statistically fewer women who have been hacking for at least 10 years when they are at founding age(early-to-mid 20s).”

When did the “founding age” drop to early-to-mid 20s? When Paul Graham started creating a cult of youth at YC that makes crossing the threshold to your thirties seem like the equivalent of entering a leper camp. And he continues to perpetuate this myth despite evidence to the contrary that shows founders in their late-30s are often more successful and have greater staying power than those who are younger.

Stating that the only successful founders are those who began coding at an early age is also a tricky myth to perpetuate. I wonder what Vin Vacanti or Kevin Systrom, who learned to code in their spare time in their twenties in order to build their first companies, would say about that. Mike Bloomberg, who not only has an MBA from Harvard (strike one), but also taught himself how to manage the technology development process and launched his own highly-lucrative technology business when he was 38, would probably have something to say about this as well.

It is this combination of gender and age bias in the interview that strikes a nerve. It is exclusive and works to perpetuate his perception of the ideal entrepreneur—young and male. Although he acknowledges that it’s hard to figure out how to get a 13-year-old girl interested in coding, he then goes on to say that only the young, who have been coding for 10+ years, should be starting technology companies. This is, de facto, stating that he has a bias to fund young male engineers. Which is obviously a problem given, once again, the microphone that he has access to.

It is a problem because this vision excludes large portions of the population who still have the native ability and time to learn new technical skills. Particularly women and girls who have been marginalized in the industry for the past thirty years (although not always).

So how do you change any of this? Again, it’s complicated. The reality is that the educational system in the US needs to be radically adjusted to reflect the new world in which we live. Technology is not only relevant to those living in the tech ecosystem and interested in launching their own ventures. It has become fully embedded in our every day life.

It impacts our civic life, where legislative issues around the NSA, copyright law, 3D printing, and drones will dominate the conversation over the next 5-10 years and will be debated by a group of people who are largely, and frighteningly, ignorant of many of the technical nuances around these issues. It impacts our economic life, where new forms of currency are emerging that will inevitably shift the balance of economic power toward those who understand the underlying technical constraints. It impacts our social lives, where those who have deep technical mastery are developing the multitude of platforms that we’re using to communicate with one another. It impacts our health, as new tools are created that will shift the way that medicine is managed and delivered.

These are not small issues. And, in order to function in this new world, we are all going to have to have a basic level of technical understanding, with many of us needing far more.

The only viable solution that I see is that we must fully integrate technology into the educational system in the same way that we incorporate reading, writing and arithmetic–make it mandatory. Start with Scratch and Hopscotch in elementary school, move onto front-end web development in middle school, and basic programming in high school. Integrate these technologies into existing disciplines (e.g., HTML/CSS into art classes). Make it fun–because, lo and behold, it is. Make it accessible to a broad audience by making it applicable to the subjects that students already love to learn.

There is no doubt that this will be both difficult and costly. An entire generation of teachers will have to be retrained to teach these skills. Curriculums will have to be radically restructured to adjust for more integrated learning. Schools will have to be retrofitted with technology. Given the current state of our educational system, this too may prove to be a Herculean task. But one that, hopefully, we can move towards achieving over the next 10 years.

Until then, we can hope that the amazing women at Girls Who Code and Hopscotch and Skillcrush and GoldieBlox keep doing what they’re doing. We can support them and encourage our friends to engage their daughters in these programs. We can learn to code ourselves so that we can be better role models for our daughters–and, answer their questions when they get stuck. I promise you, doing these things is not that complicated.

And, we can stop perpetuating and institutionalizing biases that prevent people from taking those first steps. That’s the easiest solution out there.

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