"But most women aren't really interested in programming."
When someone says that, I can relate. That's exactly how I felt about girls playing sports when I was 15. Title IX, the landmark 1972 U.S. civil rights law that mandated equal funding for both genders in educational programs — including athletics — was a hot topic during my high school years.
At the time, the major sports for girls at my school were track, gymnastics, swimming, and tennis. I remember thinking, "How will they spend the same amount of money on girls' sports as they do on boys' sports? Girls don't even want to play basketball or soccer." It didn't even occur to me that the demand might be there if girls were encouraged or supported to the same extent as their male counterparts.
Thanks to Title IX, however, the number of female high school athletes went from 295,000 in 1971 to 3.2 million in 2011. That's an increase of over 1000 percent; male athletes' numbers climbed just 20 percent in the same period.
Apparently, lots of girls do want to play basketball and soccer. And learn to code, too — we just need to support them.
The slow roll of change
When I was growing up, women and girls were referred to as either "Mrs." or "Miss," depending on their marital status; men and even boys all got the title "Mr." Even as a young girl, that struck me as unfair. Why do we care whether women are married or not?
The story of how "Ms." came to be a commonly-used title today is a fascinating one. The women's rights movement embraced it in 1970, but it took some time to make it into the mainstream. The New York Times called it "too contrived for news writing" in 1984. (By 1986, the style guide allowed "Ms." for women who requested it, and finally, in 1999, it became the standard.)
Just as my teenage self could not have imagined that girls would play basketball or soccer competitively, I expected to be Miss MacDonald until the day I would get married and become Mrs. Someone Else. Things do change for the better.
Be the change you want to see
I'm grateful to have witnessed changes like Title IX in my lifetime, but it's not over yet. Today, we have many programs that support girls and women in technology fields, including my own project, App Camp For Girls. People recognize that discrimination in tech exists, and they're taking action to level the playing field. As with Title IX, they offer support and encouragement specifically to girls and women so they can participate in this field to their fullest potential.
Discrimination still exists in this field and likely will exist for some time. But I don't get discouraged by the terrible stories circulating in the news on harassment and workplace discrimination. I don't get frustrated with well-meaning but clueless commenters who think the status quo reflects innate gender differences. Instead, I'm spurred on to redouble my own efforts to make the future better.
I challenge you to do the same and make a specific effort to improve the ratio. Supporting company policies that encourage the hiring and retention of women is a good start. Setting aside some money for an organization that supports girls in technology can also make an impact. I also have a simple suggestion: Take a look at the people whose opinions influence you online. Try following a few more women on Twitter or subscribing to their podcasts.
For me, my energy these days goes into supporting and promoting App Camp for Girls. It's the least I can do to show my gratitude to all those who were fighting on behalf of my civil rights when I was too young to appreciate it.