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From DevOps to FamilyOps: How to encourage girls in tech

Mandy Whaley Director of Developer Experience and Evangelism, Cisco DevNet

It’s difficult to find the right talent to staff DevOps teams, and it’s even harder to staff a diverse team. But as a DevOps professional, you can be part of the solution, and it starts at home.

In a recent study, Generation STEM, sponsored by the girl scounts, 68% of girls interested in STEM studies reported that their fathers encouraged them to pursue careers in those fields. “Fathers—and other male champions of change—are key factors in the participation of girls and women in STEM fields, which is fundamental for global economic progress,” the study said.

I am not an expert on women in tech or on diversity, and I am much more comfortable talking about Python and automation APIs. But I can tell you that my dad was a huge influence on my own decision to pursue an engineering degree.

But how exactly do you encourage interest in STEM? Here are five ways that a mom, dad, or other mentor can help girls and young women get interested in and pursue a STEM career. I call this effort FamilyOps.


1. Develop an engineering mindset

To work and thrive in a technology team, you need to be very comfortable with the cycle of “try, fail, learn, and iterate.” Unfortunately, opportunities to learn this mindset are not common in school. But you can teach this at home.

My father was a serial hobbyist: telescopes, bicycles, vintage cars, metal machine work, photography. I saw him approach a series of new subjects, beginning with zero previous knowledge, and work through the stages of learning, making mistakes, and eventually building a working project.

Each new subject was an opportunity for me to experience this cycle and to learn that projects don’t always work the first time you try.

I am often asked by parents which programming language they should start teaching their daughters and sons: Python or JavaScript or something designed to teach programming concepts?

The thing is, the specific language or technology doesn’t matter. The most important STEM skill is the engineering mindset. Bring your kids into your projects, and show them the mistakes and the parts that don’t work and how you learn and iterate.

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2. Work with your kids to “own” technology at home

When you give your daughter a new smartphone, laptop, or other technology, make it clear that you’re not going to set it up for her. Encourage her to figure it out for herself.

For me, this lesson hit home in third grade, after I was given a box of tangled wires and a stack of components that I needed to assemble into a stereo system. “When are you going to set it up for me?” I asked.

“You are going to set it up. Go figure it out. Go on, you can do it,” my dad said.

After some eye rolling, stomping, and sighing, I went back to my room—and figured it out on my own. From that day forward, I was able to troubleshoot problems, switch out faulty wires, and add components. I “owned” that stereo.

What technology do the girls in your house own, in the sense of troubleshooting it when it goes down and doing upgrades and maintenance? On which gadgets do your kids provide on-call support in your household?

3. Debate with your daughter ... and listen to her

If your daughter continues down a path in technology, it is very likely that she is going to need to present and defend her ideas to a group that predominantly consists of men.

You can help her practice in a safe environment at home. Pick a subject you both care about. It can be something trivial such as Star Trek vs. Star Wars, or which is the better of two books, shows, or games. My dad and I would debate the point value of letters in Scrabble, among many other things.

The important point is to really listen to her, and respectfully debate the points. Help her build the confidence to defend her ideas in a conversation.

4. It’s okay to break away from the pack

There is a strong drive in middle school to conform. Middle school is also the time when many STEM-specific classes, camps, and programs start to become available to students.

If your daughter wants to go to STEM camp or take an advanced math class, she is likely going to have to make a different choice than many of her friends. Your daughter will need encouragement and support to make these different choices. 

Middle school is the time when the word encourage has the most resonance.

5. Have the calculus talk with your daughter

Most STEM degree plans require two semesters of calculus, but many young women who succeed in Calculus I do not continue to Calculus II.

In the Generation STEM study, 35% of female students who did not continue reported that, even though they passed Calculus I, they did not feel that they had the skills needed for Calculus II. According to the study, the culprit is most likely a ”lack of mathematical confidence,” not any shortage of mathematical ability. 

The data shows that the Calc I-to-Calc II transition is a major bottleneck in the STEM pipeline for women. If women who took Calculus I entered Calculus II at the same rate as men, women would make up as much as 37% of the STEM workforce rather than the current 25%, the study concludes.

Calculus is a gateway to careers your daughter might want to pursue. Let her know that even if the course is hard, even if the teacher is less than great, even if she gets a C in calculus, she can still continue in her field of study. Tell her about the courses that you struggled with in school.

Let her know that one class should not determine her success in the field of her choice.

Boost her mathematical confidence.

Be a mentor

We need a diverse and vibrant technology community to solve problems in the future. If you have a potential future engineer or technologist that you can mentor, follow the five suggestions above to encourage them and help them to succeed.

For more on FamilyOps and how you can help, drop in on my presentation during the All Day DevOps online conference. Admission is free, and you can also watch my talk on YouTube after the event.


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