Middle school is a bit like Middle Earth. Awkward lovable hobbits, graceful elves, evil sorcerers, kind wizards, and a few hulking monsters just to round things out. We don’t really know what goes on in there. Students enter as children and leave as budding adults, having chosen an identity that will carry them through high school. With my own three children, I saw first-hand the transformations that occur during middle school. Whether I agree with isolating kids in middle school as an effective developmental educational strategy or not, I do believe that the middle school years are formative.
Middle schools provide exciting opportunities for students to ‘try on’ new identities. At a local (to me) Denver middle school, the Tech Ninjas run a student volunteer help desk for teachers. Students with technical skills help teachers trouble-shoot school technology, using a help desk ticketing system. I attended a meetup last fall where the Tech Ninjas talked about their program.
I’m sure the meetup was a great experience for the kids. They got a taste of real world working tech plus some talk-in-front-of-strangers experience. The principal also spoke briefly about the benefits of the program. I was stunned to hear these words come out of her mouth - “And we even have a pink ninja.” Lots of chuckles circled the room in response, while the pink ninja ducked her head so that her hair fell over her face.
“And we even have a pink ninja.”
Was I the only one who noticed? Why did calling out the one girl on the team feel so wrong to me? I have no insight on the origin of the label. Perhaps the girl selected the nickname herself. Perhaps she’s proud of being the girl with ninja tech skills. Perhaps the teachers and administration see themselves as being supportive. I don’t know. I wish girls in tech was a non-event.
I went to Ga. Tech in the early 80’s, when male students out-numbered female students by 5 to 1. I ended up in Mechanical Engineering, and graduated with 109 female ME’s and 905 male ME’s. I never felt different from any of my fellow students - we all worked our asses off to make the best grades we could, and I’m confident those grades were gender-neutral. I was not a pink engineer, and I would have protested loudly if anyone dared to call me one.
I have seen graphs that show that the decline of women in technology began in the mid-eighties. NPR produced a graph showing a dramatic decline. The NPR article correlates the decline of women in technology to the introduction of personal computers, which were marketed primarily to men and boys. They hypothesize that girls fell behind in computer skills and haven’t caught up.
“This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. NPR“
Business and education are now questioning the low numbers of women in technology fields, and initiatives to attract and support girls and women in technical fields are abundant - Women in STEM, Women in Technology, RailsGirls, Girls Who Code, and many others. I don’t know which ones are effective. Self-selecting into women’s groups or female-focused labels is empowering, and can be a catalyst for change. However, one program found interesting results from building a gender-neutral program - the rise in the number of women corresponded to a drop in the number of men. As women became more involved, the program became ‘feminized’, and fewer men wanted to join the program.
Crazy, huh? Add to that the high probability that the men who stayed in the program probably made more than the women, and you’ve got one effed up system. There is already the concept of ‘pink collar’ jobs - nursing, teaching, human resources, even software testing (I’ve read that women in software testing are not considered in ‘women in tech’ numbers, but can’t find the reference at the moment). However, even in female-dominated fields, men make more than women. In nursing, men make approximately $5000 more per year than women. In teaching, the wage gap is not quite as wide, but a woman still makes only 91% of the salary of her male colleague, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Of course, it’s good to take all statistics with a grain of salt, because numbers rarely tell the whole story, but the generalization is true - men make more than women.
From pink ninjas to pink collars - every woman risks bias and subtle devaluation every time she walks into a school or workplace. Not from individuals (I love my co-workers!), but from societal norms and expectations. As a white female, I probably experience only a tiny fraction of the discrimination I would feel if I were of a different race or ethnicity. I want society’s norms and expectations to eschew patriarchy in favor of individuality. I want the change to affect middle school, so that girls do not get called out for stepping across some imaginary boundary. I want equal pay. I want gender to not matter. As long as it does, though, I want all the self-identified pink ninjas, purple ninjas, rainbow ninjas, and just plain ninjas to kick ass - to be so good they cannot be ignored or marginalized.