I am a girl that grew up in front of a computer screen. I was fortunate to meet some really cool people that love technology as much as I do, and one day on a summer afternoon in 2013, I was asked to share my thoughts based on my experiences, at a TEDx presentation.
I’m not used to just standing and articulating thoughts. So I was trying to find a cool way to express myself. I decided to talk about a ‘futurespective’ of a life yet to be lived instead…. of my hypothetical unborn daughter’s life in tech.
This is the script!
For my 55th birthday my daughter took me to a restaurant. We talked about her new job and how she reached this point in her life. It was May 15th 2037.
She recently got a new job as a Software Engineer in a large web company. Whilst we ate she thanked me for supporting her and encouraging her in both her career and studies. She said I had made things easy for her.
I told her to remember that just like her I had to thank those that had come before me. The role of women in tech and in society as a whole had reached this point because we both were travelling a path paved for us, doors that once were closed had been left wide for us and glass ceilings had been shattered by the incredible women who had come before us. Things weren’t always this way…
Greece in the 1950s
“Your grandmother grew up in a Greek school Alexandria in the 1950’s. She had a natural skill for math, but she was not encouraged by her teachers to further develop it as it wasn’t seen to be “feminine”.
It was left to her father, an accountant who saw her potential to encourage her to engage with the subject she loved despite the views of the society she was part of. She was growing up in a time of great unrest; she faced the exodus of Greeks from the newly established regime of Nasser. My Mother, her Grandmother, travelled to Athens to a new society that was no more encouraging to the education of women than the one she had left. Educated women for not seen as good potential wives for the eligible bachelors of Athens.
However, she pursued her dream; she entered university and majored in Mathematics. She was part of the less than 1% of women in over 150 students on the math course. She remembers questions aimed at her and the other women on the course were often easier or jokes at their expense to help foster a so-called “friendly atmosphere”.
They didn’t hold her back. She became a Math Teacher and later the Head Teacher of a middle school in Athens. Later still she had two children…
…of which I was one. As you can see when I was growing up, I was a kind of a geek. I was given dolls to play with but my brother’s old PC seemed much more appealing. I discovered a BASIC programming book and started programming. When I was in elementary school I struggled with the expectations of the curriculum – the girls did art while I was the only girl sat with the boys in the Computer Lab.
Like my mother’s passion for Math, I loved computers, the internet and gadgets of all types. I was the first Greek student to receive the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship from Google and founded the Women in Computing Society at my university.
I also finished my PhD in Computer Science at Imperial College in 2014
My daughter was born in 2015. While she was growing up I made sure to develop her skills and creative thinking as much as I could. Way back in 2013 toys were at a crossroads the familiar pink aisles of miniature house hold goods were gradually being replaced. Toys’R Us removed references to gendered toys from their catalogues
…and even the women of the Lego world began to climb the career ladder, one brick at a time.
It wasn’t just me who encouraged my daughter. Growing up in the second decade of the 2000’s schools had seized upon computing and technology crept into the classroom – from programmable white boards to the school library using kindles. Back in 2013 there were already many after school clubs and initiatives backed by both government and the private sector to encourage girls to become interested in technology. The work of long established organisations like Women in Science and Engineering was further augmented by initiatives like Lady Geek, Girls in Tech and Girl Geek Dinners fostering both a love of technology and enabling students to meet likeminded peers. In 2013 there were currently 17 UK-based and 53 US & Canada STEM activities dedicated to helping aspiring women.
This led to a rise in the numbers of female students taking degrees in scientific disciplines. Even before 2013 the total population of students graduating with masters in Computer Science was seeing an increase in females, it was a trend matched in PhD finalists where by 2010 females made up approximately 22%. By 2020 U.S. businesses alone will need 1.4 million computer scientists.
Her everyday life
My Daughter’s life in 2037 isn’t the science fiction her Grandmother may have imagined in the 1950’s. She doesn’t drive a flying car or go by jetpack to work each morning – she takes the Hyperloop like the rest of the commuters…
For her, technology is everywhere. The Internet of Things has become a reality. Wireless communication and sharing of data between connected devices happens seamlessly and constantly. From the motion sensitive alarm clock to wake her when her sleep is lightest, to the milk for her coffee that is always present in the refrigerator as the refrigerator ordered it for her, the self-locking doors, climate control and even mood generated home décor she lives a live surrounded by tech. At her office she’s a member of a team located all over the world they meet virtually by video conference, though in 2037 she tells me it still breaks down and the meeting room is still double-booked.
The seeds of this technical ubiquity were present in 2013. Mobile phones were as powerful then as the most powerful of computers in her grandmother’s time. The tech companies were just starting to harness the possibilities of wearable technology. It wasn’t just the tech giants that moved in this direction. Crowdfunding lowered the barrier to entry for R&D. The Leap Motion and the Myo gave us new ways to interact with technology, lost items could be found with RFID startup “Tile” and we can leave all this tech secure in homes thanks to keyless entry with “Lockitron”…
Notably it was in the early 2000’s that the stereotype of the “geek” was laid to rest. The rise of “Geek Chic” and the appropriation of technology as a fashion item broke down some of the stigma attached to the industry as a whole. Way back in 2013 parties didn’t happen without a Facebook event and a latte was never drunk without proof of it on Instagram.
In her Grandmother’s time the heroines of women’s rights were historical. They were the women who literally fought and in some cases died for their equality. The rise of the early feminist movement in the 1960’s further changed laws and culture. By 2013 we had recognizable female voices in society and in technology. Though it was true we still seemed to celebrate our heroines retroactively we did start to take pride in a female tradition of technology. Female CEO’s were lauded in the press though there were still too few and their gender was still something of a novelty.
We had come through the storms of Women’s Liberation, and entered a process of normalization of women having a say and a seat at the table. We were yet to reach the stage of pure performance where gender was entirely unimportant but the shift had begun, as we approached the end of 2013 we began to celebrate our emergent female tech leaders.
In my life I have been fortunate. Other amazing women have paved the way for me. I no longer feel that I am fighting, not in the same way as the Suffragettes and not even in the same way as my Mother. For me there is no longer a battle to be fought, for it has already been won, now we need everyone to accept this. I want to make this path even easier for that hypothetical daughter of mine.
Things aren’t yet perfect, reality too often bleeds through my rose-tinted spectacles and can have a jarring effect. At a recent TechCrunch sponsored hackathon two team presented ideas that made international news for their stunning sexism and lack of awareness… yet even here there is hope. At the same event nine year old Alexandra Jordon presented her app “SuperFunKidTime.com”, a scheduler for play dates. She’s currently learning Ruby and HTML with the aid of her Dad. The future I imagine is already with us.
So how can you help? I ask the members of this audience not for a grand gesture or to play a life changing role instead I ask you for one small change to help normalize the changes we are already seeing.
It was Wittgenstein who said that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I’d like us to stand on the shoulders of the women who have gone before us and make a tiny semantic shift. This isn’t a call to arms, but a call for allegiance.
The audience here today and those who will watch this later will come from all walks of life from thousands of different professions I’d like them and all of you slowly change the way we think. Maybe in the next job advertisement you write for a programmer you could use “she” instead of “he? At your next technical conference you could look hard to find those incredible female speakers of whom there are still too few? In your next Hollywood blockbuster production the Professor struggling to save the world from an alien menace could be a woman? The protagonist of the novel you’ve always longed to write could be a heroine for generations to come.
My vision of life in 2037 might not be a perfect prediction but I hope that you can bring a small part of this future back to the present so we can remember how to get there again someday.
After all the future happiness of my unborn hypothetical daughter, of all our unborn hypothetical daughters relies on us.
Marily Nika TEDx
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