Editor’s note: This article has been contributed by guest poster, Michaela Jeffery-Morrison.
Let’s run a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re a girl with a knack for technology. You enjoy using apps, or helping your friends design their social media pages, or even building simple tools and applications yourself. Your parents encourage you to pursue this passion, and they do their best to nurture it within you. But when you read or hear about people working in tech, something stands out: there aren’t many women. How do you feel about your prospects of entering that world, let alone flourishing within it?
We might like to think that we’re the kind of people who have the unshakeable resolve to keep going in such a situation, to embrace the challenge, to become a pioneer. And some of us are like that. After all, the history of representation in tech, as in other industries, has often started with people who have an extraordinary level of determination, even a kind of sense of destiny. They might think the cards are stacked against them, but they carry on anyway. But many of us are not like that. And should it really be the minimum expectation of any young woman or girl looking to get into tech (or any other sector, for that matter)? I say no.
This is why role models matter. We all want to know that at least part of the path we’re on has been walked before, not because we want to imitate others, or because we’re scared to do things in our own authentic way, but because we want to know that it’s possible. Budding athletes wear jerseys with the names of their heroes on the back. Aspiring musicians plaster their bedroom walls with pop stars. They represent not just an ideal, but a possibility. So long as there are others who look like us doing the things that we want to do, we know that we can do it too.
We might intuit this. Who hasn’t looked up to someone in their lives and tried to follow in their footsteps? But there’s also hard proof of the power of role models in tech. One study shows that female students are more likely to major in a STEM field if they have a female professor rather than a male one. Retention of junior female employees is linked with the number of female supervisors. There’s a deeply human need to look up and be inspired by people we identify with.
The good news is that brilliant women are working all the way across the tech sector, in every department and at every level. Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of Space. Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. Susan Wojcicki, former CEO of YouTube. We need to cast light on these women, and we need to give those like them a platform to be seen and heard. And those of us working in tech ourselves need to be role models too: by sharing our experiences with others, showing our vulnerability, and making ourselves available to the next generation of girls and women.
And we need to celebrate the trailblazers, from Ada Lovelace, the first programmer, to Annie Easley, who developed the code that led to hybrid-car batteries. There’s a tradition of women in tech that has been neglected by historians and only recently is really being brought to light. We can all play a part in celebrating and perpetuating this tradition. And by doing so, girls and young women going into tech are also becoming part of a dynamic and historic movement.
The next generation of women in tech needs role models if they are to become that next generation and flourish. Those role models exist, now as in history. We only need to give them the spotlight. And if we do, it isn’t just women in tech who will flourish. Everyone will.