By Kristen V. Brown
San Francisco Chronicle.
As a mathematically inclined 17-year-old, patterns are something Abby Wheat appreciates.
Patterns, after all, are the magic of math, the underlying system of logic for both the physical and theoretical.
Recently, though, Wheat began to notice a pattern she didn’t like.
To start, there were the pitches from college engineering programs in curly purple typeface accented by flowery images.
She started to notice that many websites for budding female engineers are pink. Then there was the flyer for an after-school program hanging in a hallway of her high school. Printed on purple polka-dot paper, it read, “Are you a tech girl? Are you a web diva?”
The soon-to-be high school senior aspires to become an engineer of some sort. She has absolutely no interest, however, in a career as a “web diva.”
“It seems so degrading,” Wheat said. “If you’re a girl interested in building websites, you’re a ‘web diva.’ If you’re a boy, you’re a web developer.”
Wheat had discovered what Elizabeth Losh, a digital culture scholar at UC San Diego, calls “ridiculous, pink, sparkly techno-princess land.”
Pink websites and polka-dotted flyers are what happens when an entire field overcorrects, Losh says.
Women are grossly underrepresented in engineering and computer science careers, a fact that is attracting an increasing amount of attention.
Since May, a number of tech companies, among them Google and Facebook, have released their lagging diversity figures, accompanied by pledges to bridge the gender divide.
The lack of female technical talent is an issue that most tech companies have owned up to.
Now, people everywhere, from Google to college admissions offices, are looking for ways the change that. And often, it seems, the proposed solution is simply to turn tech pink.
But as Wheat sees it, the problem with techno-princess land is that it attempts to combat the stereotype that technology is a guy thing with stereotypes of what women want.
The overflow of pink in her inbox moved the Virginia teen to pen an opinion piece, which was recently a runner-up in a New York Times teen editorial contest.
“It says that the only way you can be interested in technology is if it is girly,” said Wheat.
“I’m very girly. My room is purple. I have floral bedding. I think I’ll probably be a very feminine engineer. I just don’t like the idea of being pigeonholed.”
Such pink-coated outreach efforts are not limited to young women.
At a recent Bay Area tech mixer put on by Girl Geek Dinners, the tech company that chose the decor elected to replace office lightbulbs with pink and purple ones, bathing the entire event in a fuchsia glow.
An open bar was covered with a pink sequined runner. Guests were encouraged to take a Cosmo-style personality quiz revealing their nerd girl personas and given slap-bracelets and strawberry lip balm at the door.
Technology has been associated with masculinity since long before the personal computer.
Tools used by men — those, say, for building a house — became technology. Tools used by women — sewing machines, KitchenAid mixers, a mortar and pestle — were instead utensils and appliances.
“We tend to think about technology in terms of industrial machinery and cars,” sociologist Judy Wajcman wrote in 1991, “ignoring other technologies that affect most aspects of everyday life.”
Decades of rhetoric have resulted in deeply-ingrained cultural associations.
A 2008 study by the Association for Computing Machinery found that while college-bound boys equated words like “interesting,” “video games” and “solving problems” with computing, girls associated terms like “typing,” “math” and “boredom.” Research released in May by Google found roughly the same thing.
It is no surprise, then, that women earn 18.2 percent of computer science degrees nationally and fill only 15 percent of the tech-related jobs at Facebook and Yahoo.
“People have these images of what computer science is, so if you can repackage it, that’s a great thing,” said Telle Whitney, president of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
Young women’s perception of technology is generally viewed as a major obstacle in getting them interested in the first place. Trying to make tech seem cool and relevant to women, some attach names like “tech divas” to young female technologists.
But “pinkification” can have the opposite result.
“My Fair Physicist,” a widely cited 2012 University of Michigan study, questioned whether having more feminine role models in science and math could counteract stereotypes.
It found that feminine role models reduced middle school girls’ interest in those subjects and confidence in their own ability in math compared to more gender-neutral role models.
Even before the first dot-com bubble burst, Stanford psychologist Claude Steele showed that a stereotype threat can bias performance by evoking negative stereotypes.
For instance, when women are reminded of the stereotype that men are better at math — even in extremely subtle ways, such as checking a gender box at the beginning of an exam — their performance measurably declines.
A pink website for tech-savvy women, said Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor of gender studies at Barnard, is “like saying, ‘Oh yeah, tech is for you, too. But it wasn’t already for you. It’s ‘Oh poor you, you need a little extra help.’ ”
And, explained Losh, the UCSD professor, it perpetuates an ideology of segregation — an ideology partially responsible for the problem in the first place.
“It creates the idea that women need sort of a separate universe in which women can be tech professionals,” she said. “Instead of trying to be inclusive, it’s an alternate reality world.”
Yet, examples of tech’s pinkification persist.
In February, at a Harvard event designed to get women interested in computer science, sponsor Goldman Sachs handed out cosmetic mirrors and nail files.
The move inspired significant backlash after Yuqi Hou, a Harvard student and Web developer, posted a photo of the items on Instagram.
Hou said it felt like the company was “not taking us as seriously by giving us these dinky little nail files.”
Last month, Google announced its plan to spend $50 million over the next three years encouraging young women to give coding a try.
The website for the project features articles about inspiring women, like Erica Kochi, who leads UNICEF’s Innovation Unit.
The first item on a page of coding projects for girls to try is a 3-D-printed bracelet.
“It’s insulting, not only because it’s highly gendered, but also because it perpetuates this idea of women as consumeristic and narcissistic,” said Losh. “It’s kind of like a trifecta of badness.”
Pinkification is in no way limited to the tech industry — it’s prevalent throughout science and math disciplines.
In 2012, for instance, the European Commission received criticism after producing a highly sexualized video campaign, “Science: It’s A Girl Thing!”
Some say the tech industry has simply co-opted the language that toy companies use to market products to girls.
Google’s Megan Smith, who is leading Made with Code, explained that the examples it chose to highlight were simply the ones that scored highest in testing.
“I don’t think it’s always obvious to kids all the things that are doable with code,” said Smith, vice president of Google’s semisecret special projects lab, Google X. “Clearly we’re choosing a broad range.”
The Mountain View company has made some strides in its outreach to women. This year, 20 percent of people attending its annual developer conference were women, more than double the year before.
“There has been a notion that tech is a male-dominated field, but I think that’s ending,” said the 17-year-old Wheat. “There’s starting to be an understanding in my generation that it’s sort of a ridiculous assumption.”
In the meantime, she would like colleges to quit sending her e-mails adorned with images of cherry blossoms.
“Do people really think that the only way you will ever get a girl to write coding for innovative software is to stick a butterfly somewhere in there?” she wrote. “These questions may seem far-fetched, but I have received far too many ‘lady-centric’ e-mails in Curlz MT font from prospective colleges for that to be true.”
Looking at Google’s Made with Code website, Wheat sighed.
“There’s so much more to engineering than we offer to girls,” she said. “There’s so much more than coding a bracelet.”
She wishes instead for more female role models, women like Ada Lovelace, the 19th century mathematician often credited with being the world’s first computer programmer.
“Women are people,” Wheat said. “They’re not, like, pink machines.”