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Don’t Fall: How systems keep on keeping our girls down

Girl with marbles This post originally appeared on the authors blog at This Happened to Me.

I was standing in the hallway of my Catholic elementary school in north Toronto. It was grade 7, and I had the male Principal, the male teacher who taught the other grade 7 class, and my female teacher all standing in front of me, surrounding me and two of my classmates, also girls.

“Why are you doing this?” they all chimed in.

What they weren’t banking on was the kid they had in front of them, and the mother that stood behind me in my mind’s eye.

“Because I already know how to make mac ‘n cheese!” I responded.

My crime? I wanted to take Shop Class in grade 7, and not Home Ec; the first elective we were “given a choice” for in grade 7. And two of my best friends wanted to join me.

This was 1982. Not 1962.

I didn’t want to take Home Ec. I had been cooking with my mother for years, who knew how to make an outstanding stew out of almost nothing, and I had no interest in learning how to sew. What I wanted to do was learn how to use other tools. I wanted to learn how to use a lathe, and a power sander, and tin snips, and to solder. 

I was always that inquisitive kid. I took apart my light switches and my tape recorders just to see how they worked. I coveted my Dad’s tools, and was always finding reasons and ways to take apart remotes, rotary phones, and any other piece of technology I could. I had a micro TRS-80 at home, and was programming using a PET Commodore 64 in the gifted program. I loved, loved, loved my Donkey Kong mini arcade and my Merlin. I was 30 years too early to the recent maker movement…and my school wanted me to learn how to sew.

I stood my ground, and just as the After School Special would’ve told the story, I was one of the leaders of the class. I excelled at making bowls and tin boxes, and was often the kid that showed the other kids how to use their tools and machinery. I was totally in my element.

And then the entire system failed me.

I had to promise to take Home Ec in grade 8, if I wasn’t going to take it in grade 7. So, no matter the promise I showed in Shop class, I was forced to follow patterns and bake horrible cakes in Home Ec the following year, and even more appalling, feed them to the Shop class.

Not once, did anyone in my gifted program say “Hey, you LOVE computers! You know, you can go to school for that.”

Not once did my parents say, “You know, you could study electronics and engineering!”

My math teachers thought that I was a pain, because I didn’t want to just know what the Pythagorean theorem was; I wanted to know who was Pythagoras and why did he use this theorem. No one said “Hey, you be a good math teacher!” No one. Not once.girl with marbles

I guess everyone else assumed someone else would help put me on that path. And no one ever did. Including myself.

I eventually went to university while a single mother with a three year old, for Economics and Women’s Studies, all of which I loved, but that didn’t really ignite me. What did excite me was being online in 1994. Using the early web, learning more and more about the Internet and its potential. Still, I simply never saw the possibilities in front of me. I was looking towards a steady income to support myself and my daughter, not dreams of making, building and designing. No TAs, administrators, professors or counsellors saw that either.

Inevitably, I fell into tech all on my own, and that was thanks to another woman who worked at Canada’s first startup ISP, Netcom Canada. “Come and get a job here”, she said to me “you’ll love it!” And she was right. Telecom and internet connectivity was my professional gateway drug.

I was always a keener and a self-learner, another thing I learned from my mother who was back in school learning Symphony and DOS before anyone really knew how important these languages would eventually be.

At Netcom, I started in sales support, and then progressed to sales. I went to every lunch and learn, and spent every possible opportunity up in the NOC, watching the screens, asking questions, learning what a network really was and how it really worked. Yet, no one said, “you know, you could come work up here with us.”

I realized that I was actually spending a lot of time educating my clients to this emerging technology, and not only was I really good at it, I loved it. I hosted a day at our offices for young girls from a high school computer class, introducing them to other cool, geeky women, showing them the possibilities in front of them in the world of technology. That was one of the first times I said, “You know, you could work in this world!” and one girl from that class did.

Then, I moved into teaching technology in the corporate world, using my storytelling skills to depict how an MPLS designed network handled packets by comparing it to everyone’s favourite I Love Lucy episode, and I loved that too. I eventually took on other roles with other carriers in Canada, and I learned more about business, operations and systems; and I was mostly self-taught there too. And no one said to me, “You know, you could finish your degree in this!”. No one. Not even me.

You’ll now often find me speaking and writing about women in tech, engaging girls in early conversations about technology, and standing up to fight overt misogyny and sexism in the field of technology. And people ask me why am I still doing this. Because I never felt that this was a possibility for me, and I do often lament the lost opportunities to have delved deeply into programming, engineering and making, and I’ll be damned if I let one girl that I have any possibility of impacting or meeting lose the same opportunity.

So, my line to my daughter, and especially any young women I meet has always been this: don’t fall.

Don’t fall into the guy, the job, the career, the baby, the debt. Don’t fall. Choose. Be purposeful. Find your thing, experiment, investigate and imagine what can happen when you choose, when you envision.

Imagine. Imagine what happens when we encourage girls to become developers and programmers, engineers and leaders, and show them the way to make that happen. They’d be leading the world in changing those systems that used to keep them contained.

Imagine if all teachers encouraged girls to take shop, automotive or computer science classes starting in kindergarten. They’d be astronauts, race car drivers and systems designers.

Imagine if TAs and guidance counsellors were taught and supported in how to help gear women and girls toward courses and careers that ignited them, instead of those that seem “appropriate” according to some dated careers survey. Our education systems would be transformed.

Really, it’s up to all of us to not let our girls just fall into things. It’s up to each one of us to show them the possibilities and the choices that they do have.

So, celebrate and support groups like Ladies Learning Code, Making Sh*t Happen, and Girls in Tech. Speak out against sexism, and stand up against horrible working conditions, overburdened teachers, and disengaged guidance counsellors, and take every opportunity to let a girl know that she doesn’t have to fall.

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