Selling ourselves (short)

The other day, I participated in an event aimed at improving the retention and recruitment of women in computer science.  The event is actually part of a series of talks sponsored by a major organization—the idea being that the talks will help demystify computer science, and what computer scientists do in their careers, which in turn will help women get excited about computer science and all of its inherent possibilities and decide to major in CS, etc.

It’s an interesting idea for a program, and fundamentally a sound one:  one of the things we hear most often from students is that they don’t really understand what computer science is or what computer scientists do or why computer science is important/fascinating/what everyone should be studying.  This program aims to put a face on computing, and specifically a female face on computing (most of the speakers, if I understand correctly, will be women from this organization).

The inaugural event consisted of a panel of female technologists in a variety of roles, from technical writing to working with the marketing department.  They talked about their jobs, what they do, what skills they use, etc.  Sounds great, right?

Except for one thing:  the women on the panel—or at least the ones I heard, since I was in and out of the room—kept selling themselves, and their skills, and their jobs, short!

From the one who described her job as “fluffy” to the one who apologized that her job was either not technical enough or not terribly difficult (I forget which), the take-away message seemed to be not “Oh my god, is it ever cool to work in CS and here are all the varied things you can do as a computer scientist!”, but “The only ‘real’ computer science job is the one which involves hard-core coding.  Anything less is not really CS.”

And we wonder why CS has such a PR problem!

This was a real missed opportunity on the part of this organization.  They had a captive audience and a really wonderful (and rare) opportunity to start changing minds about what it means to be a computer scientist and do computer science.  The women on this panel by and large had varied and interesting backgrounds.  This is exactly what I try to tell my students:  the best thing about CS is that you can combine it with any passion you have and build an interesting and successful career from it.  You would think the panelists would be celebrating their talents and the very diversity that their backgrounds bring to the field of CS, and be excited and passionate about how they are able to combine all of their skills and talents to do interesting things…but no.  Instead of singing the praises of their jobs, they sold themselves short.  Way short.

If we, as technologists, cannot do a better job at selling ourselves and what we do to a captive audience, then how are we going to successfully sell CS to a general audience?  If we can’t convey the message that CS is more than just coding/hacking, then we have already lost the battle of relevancy.  And if we as women can’t convey to an audience of (mainly) women that there are many valid ways to be a computer scientist, then how can we ever hope to improve the recruitment and retention of women AND men who love technology but don’t love the narrow box that CS is often portrayed as?