Advocating For Women In Tech

By: Amy Vernon
Note: I was asked to speak at Girl Geek Dinners NYC on the topic of “Advocating for Women in Tech: Not So Alien Anymore.” This blog post is based on that talk.
I remember when Pong came out. Not exactly when – the year is hazy and all – but I remember sitting on the living room floor, showing my friend the wonder of playing virtual table tennis. We had color TVs, but we also had this little portable black and white number we got when we opened an account at the local bank (banks used to actually vie for business and give stuff like this out). Being that Pong was black and white anyhow, that was our special video game TV.
The system also came with blackjack and I think some other game on it. When I was sick, my parents would bring it to my room and I could play Pong and blackjack to my heart’s content. Things were good.
When I was in third or fourth grade, in the late 1970s, a group of us were chosen for an accelerated math program. Once or twice a week, we had the honor of going to the computer lab – which was basically a supply closet that had been converted and set up to have a row of maybe three computers and a dot-matrix printer.
The computers we worked on were basically glorified calculators. We solved the problems and it was terribly exciting when we’d print out our results and listen to the satisfying zzzzzzttt zzzzzzttt zzzzzzttt of the printer drilling out our results.
We were working on computers! Our classmates were very jealous. Or maybe not. They didn’t have to sit in a closet a couple times a week.
By the seventh or eighth grade, there was the ASCENT program. It was a special class that met for a period a day (or maybe every other day, I can’t remember) and we got to do all sorts of advanced math and science stuff. We even had mice in the classroom – and one of the little bastards bit me, causing the school to mandate that students couldn’t pick up classroom animals without immediate teacher oversight. That was the first of three rules in our school district that were instituted because of me, but that’s another story entirely.
The exciting part was that we learned to program in BASIC. We had the computer scroll our name across the screen. Or up from the bottom. Or, if we were feeling really adventurous, we’d have it go diagonally. Oooh. We programmed the computer to ask us questions. By high school, I tested out of having to take the intro to computers course.
By this time, I knew I was going to be a writer – a journalist. Pen to paper, maybe in war zones. I would give voice to the voiceless and uncover scandal. So I went to study journalism at Northwestern University.
My best grade, by a mile, during freshman year was a statistics course. My parents were somewhat amused that I, the writer, was doing better in math and statistics than writing. I also got a pretty good grade in the intro to computers course I took for a gimme, sharing the textbook with two other friends. We learned to turn on Macs. We learned to turn on PCs. We learned DOS (does anybody remember DOS?). It wasn’t very taxing. I took it for an easy grade, and was extremely focused on journalism and history. I did, however, spend many weekends in the campus computer lab, searching databases for jobs and information about news organizations – gathering data.
I was one of the few who was trusted with the map of computer terminals in the campus newspaper’s newsroom – you needed to know the terminal code in order to send a direct message to the person working on that computer. Most people didn’t know the computers had that messaging capability, and it would freak them out when a message flashed across the top of the screen as they typed in a story.
Computers were fun.
At my first internships, computers were shared between reporters. In the Palm Beach County bureau of The Miami Herald, I shared with a staff reporter who pushed me to get my stories done first so she could have the time she needed to write hers. I got really good at writing quickly. She and I remained friends for years. At the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., I shared a terminal with a veteran reporter who preferred to type his story. On a typewriter. I had full access to the computer and took notes on it when I did phone interviews.
By the time I got my first full-time job, each reporter had her own computer. We had a dedicated Internet terminal we could use to look up things. I got my first email address, through the South East Florida Information Network – SEFLIN. It was really, really long, something along the lines of It might have been longer. I can’t really remember. But I used this newfound Internet access to check out alt/ discussion groups, join reporting listservs and plow through Compuserv databases we subscribed to. I traced the background of a manager of an apartment community when he was accused of financial improprieties through and found he’d done fishy things before. The state started looking into him.
A cop was shot in Phoenix and I found his home address by combing online records. Our larger competitor, whose home turf was Phoenix, did not get a first-day interview with the family.
Frustrated with a database reporter’s speed and accuracy, I took on the work on several charts for our annual analysis of the state Education Department’s data on test scores and demographics. The next year, I taught myself Microsoft Access and did it all myself. We had no errors in our charts that year. All the while, whenever I tried to move into computer assisted reporting or web editing and development, I was passed over for a guy. In some cases, the guy was far more experienced than me. In other cases, far less. In 17 years, the newspapers I was at only had one female data reporter. I taught myself HTML and our web editors knew if they just showed me what was wrong, I would help the rest of the staff. I tried everything – MyBlogLog, BlogCatalog, Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Cre8Buzz, everything – and found ways to drive more traffic to our content than ever before.
Then I was laid off.
Because of my deep involvement in social media sites before the layoff, I knew I’d be OK. And I was. I got my first contract for consulting the day after being laid off. I started going to social media and tech events. At first, they sort of merged, as social media was the realm of early adopters and tech wonks. But I found more and more marketing folks at these events. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I was now in marketing myself, I realized. Though I’m still not a programmer, by any means, I am taking a Udemy course in app development. I can figure things out if I just try, and have solved many problems on my own website. I can tweak HTML and CSS and make things how I like them.
I realized that despite feeling as if I’m not really a woman who techs, I am a woman in tech. I’ve been on the board of Girls In Tech, was a mentor for Women Innovate Mobile, have mentored for Women 2.0, am an advisor for NY Tech Women and Bella Minds; I was fortunate to around when Vanessa Hurst and Sara Chipps were incubating what would become Girl Develop It – I’m drawn to all these organizations that help women realize they are in tech and of tech and help advocate for women in tech. We have our heroines of Grace Hopper and Anita Borg. We have our modern-day pioneers such as Hilary Mason and Caterina Fake. This is our time. And we don’t have to wait for someone to invite us to the table. And we don’t have to adhere to someone else’s definition of what it means to be “in tech.”