Jul 06, 2015

    Thirty Going On Auntie: Don't be afraid to be a tech goddess

    LADIES and gentlemen, never mind Silicon Valley; a tech feminist revolution is playing on a television screen near you.

    If a 1980s tech drama consuming my late-night hours is to be believed, a woman in Texas invented not just friendly operating systems, but also dial-up networking, Internet chatrooms, LAN gaming and the first-person-shooter genre beloved by geeks all over.

    Halt And Catch Fire, now showing on American cable network AMC, reimagines the shady days of personal computers (PCs), filling the black hole of early tech history with a quartet of characters trying to build and ship an IBM PC clone: a Steve Jobs-meets-Bryan Ferry, Svengali salesman named Joe MacMillan, hardware whizz Gordon Clark and his more talented wife Donna, and a tall blonde punk genius coder named Cameron Howe. In the show's second and current season, Cameron and Donna are emerging as the true stars, as they struggle to grow their dial-up gaming business.

    I find Cameron most intriguing, her androgynous style and uncompromising vision a breath of fresh air, given that most tech-related shows relegate women to hot girlfriend or marketing support roles, or as the token female Asian techie (Woohoo! Two minorities covered in one!).

    Donna, in particular, strikes a chord in me: A mother of two, she is desperately chasing her passion while raising a family - equally adept at fixing her daughters' Speak & Spell toy, as she is troubleshooting networks. Sensible older sister to her hot-headed business partner, she is the pragmatic "auntie" holding it all together.

    It remains to be seen how the plot plays out, but my sense is that Halt And Catch Fire is already doing something important: Giving (relatively) higher visibility to women in tech fields, even as we remain mired in a world of controversial sexual discrimination lawsuits a la Ellen Pao and alarming gender disparity in the global tech industry.


    Two months ago, CNet.com published a report, Women In Tech: The Numbers Don't Add Up, analysing the figures of women in leadership and technical roles at 11 of the world's largest tech companies, and concluded that the numbers are "downright depressing". Google has women in only 17 per cent of its tech posts, and just 21 per cent of them manage other employees. Ten per cent of Twitter's employees in technical jobs are female, with 21 per cent in leadership.

    And American film producer Robin Hauser Reynolds told Fortune.com recently that she made her new documentary on female computer programmers, Code: Debugging The Gender Gap, after learning that her daughter was just one of two women in her computer science class.

    Watching Halt And Catch Fire, I am reminded of the heady days of primitive tech. Hearing terms such as "degauss" (when was the last time you degaussed a floppy?) and "baud rates" reminded me of a time my 14-year-old self schlepped to Sim Lim Square to buy RAM upgrades and internal modems. Back home, I unscrewed the beige case of my made-in-Singapore Aztech 486 computer to plug in my new hardware, blowing dust from the contact points and rocking the boards for a better connection.

    I remember the thrill of dialling up to a BBS (bulletin board service), befriending the SysOp (system operator), poking around in root directories, and downloading image files that took forever to appear line-by-line on one's VGA screen. Girl geeks were rare in the late 1980s, and meeting other BBS users meant zoo-like attention or being ignored by socially awkward guys. Talk of new innovation or gadgetry died abruptly around me, never revived after someone says: "Oh, it's too complicated to explain."

    I'm not sure what happened, but that early interest didn't lead to a career in tech. Instead, I veered towards the arts and became an English literature major. Perhaps, in a different world - one that did not send subliminal signals that tech was a boys' club or somehow defeminising - I might have gone down a different path.


    Recently, three friends and I started art and literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com together, and I rediscovered the joys of designing a site, examining HTML source code and figuring out search engine optimisation.

    Things are changing - albeit slowly.

    Last month, recruitment firm Robert Half released the results of its survey of corporate technology chiefs in eight countries: Almost half of 100 respondents in Singapore said that their companies have recruited more women for tech roles in the last five years. More comprehensive data about female employee numbers was not included, so it is hard to say how significant this increase is.

    DigiGirlz, a Microsoft campaign-cum-programme, gives high-school girls opportunities to learn about careers in tech online and participate in offline workshops.

    Even something as simple as changing classroom decor can help: In 2009, a Berkeley University study found that switching stereotypically geeky objects in a computer science classroom, such as Star Trek posters and pizza boxes, to more neutral ones, such as nature posters and water bottles, is enough to raise female students' interest levels in the subject.

    Mums play a big part, as role models and support for Camerons of the future.

    My friend Jean-Nie attends a coding class with her 10-year-old daughter every Saturday.

    Another friend, Gina, who leads a team to manage global clients' IT infrastructure, says her four-year-old daughter sees her working from home enough to know that women and tech go together. "I pull her onto my lap and show her what's on my screen - usually network diagrams, or code or monitoring screens of thousands of servers," says Gina.

    "My kids assume women fix computer stuff at home," she adds.

    We are surrounded so much by software, apps and devices today, that it no longer makes sense for half the world's population to sit back and depend on others to shape our online universe from its core. It's not enough to be able to just take selfies or use social media; think about writing the code that takes better selfies or dream the next big tech thing. Redefine that realm.

    Sure, Halt And Catch Fire may just be a show, but pop culture can change real-world perceptions of gender in tech professions. Aunties, young women and girls can and should dig deep into the stuff that makes up our digital lives. They have, in the past. And they will continue to.


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