Dear my young friends: get ready to fight

by Erin on March 6, 2014

It is women’s history month, and the zeitgeist eye is turned this year toward women in tech. The past year has been amazing for this movement, and deeply satisfying for me as a video game developer who has been waiting for this kind of awakening for a very long time. That’s what it feels like: the world waking up to the vast untapped potential in half of our species. And yet, as I listen, I find myself wishing it could all be a little less polite.

The efforts to make environments welcoming and inclusive and to create safe spaces are wonderful and needed. They are acts of peace and beauty. But they are one half of the equation, and somehow the half that gets all the attention, because it is nice, because it is well behaved, because it conforms to our pleasant ideas of how good girls should act. It tells us that we can keep our ideas of polite and neatly dressed ladies and still pursue the dream of women engineers, women game designers, women programmers. And maybe in an ideal world that would be true. I want it to be true, and I believe that someday it will be. But I also believe we are doing our young people a disservice if we tell them that the world has to be welcoming in order for them to succeed.

Even if the office environment welcomes women, the technology will not, because technology isn’t welcoming. It might appear so to consumers, but that is because it has been hammered into shape, coaxed into decent behavior, had as many edges sanded off as we can afford to sand.

I was fortunate to be exposed to computers from a very young age. I can’t actually remember when I first made something using one. But I do remember when it got hard. I was fifteen and making webpages so that my online friends and I could tell stories in a fantasy world. When I made those pages — at that time a very technical thing — it wasn’t because someone made HTML a safe space for me. It was because I wanted that website so damn bad that I was willing to put up with all manner of nonsense to get it. And that, by and large, is how technology works. It is not easy. It is not friendly. It is not welcoming. It’s clunky and difficult and imperfect and beautiful. It is command line, not start button; it says break me.

If you get frustrated and give up because you are not welcomed, you are never going to make it. And so this is what I would tell my brilliant young colleagues: you are so, so welcome to this strange world of power and mechanism. It is going to resist you. But that resistance is what will make victory sweeter. It is what will make cooperation more powerful. It is why we need your minds and your hearts. Come on in, and be ready to fight.

This readiness and willingness to fight for what you believe in is more complex than we like to consider, and that might be why we so hesitate to spotlight it. It goes deeper into our perception of what constitutes good behavior.

My parents gave me many gifts, but the gift from my father that I treasure most is skepticism. He taught me to question everything — as much with his own cranky behavior as through deliberate instruction (sorry, Dad). He, like Carl Sagan, believed that it was his civic duty to question, to challenge. I have come to regard this attitude as not only practically helpful in my life but as a thing of extraordinary beauty: a notion that we as human beings can hold the world to a higher standard. That it is in fact our duty to do so, it is what we do as a species, the thing that — if anything can — defines us as more than animal. We question. We build. We change our world.

And so the will to fight begins, or dies, very young. It dies when you tell your little girl to be quiet and well-behaved. It dies when pretty and sweet are how we praise and opinionated is how we chastise. It dies when a girl is called bratty and argumentative where a boy is brave and strong-willed. It dies when you compliment nice and condemn difficult.

Our girls need to be difficult because the world is going to be difficult for them. The world is difficult for all of us — that’s part of what makes it amazing. Technology can be especially difficult. I wouldn’t be in it if it wasn’t. In education today, grit and tenacity are two words you hear often, values we talk about instilling in our young people as predictors of success in life. Cultivating these values exists in direct opposition to creating a padded environment that always welcomes, always invites, always asks.

I would be one of the first to tell you that the often toxic Silicon Valley world needs to become more welcoming to women if it wants to survive. It needs to do that just to achieve a certain basic bar of decency and to continue to be a place where I want to work. But the work of bringing young women into technology only begins there. And it disturbs me to hear us so often beating that drum of inclusiveness while we simultaneously build a world that puts children in racing lanes and pushes them to perform, but only in a certain way. Excel, we say, but stay in your lane. Achieve, but only within this approved set of activities. Check these boxes to go to college. Pass this test. Play this instrument.

We can get young women into STEM careers. We can inspire and encourage them. This is a fantastic thing. We can make workplaces more civil and inclusive. This would materially make my life better. But if we don’t change the on-rails experience of education, if we don’t foment rebellion in the hearts of our young women, how can we say we’re preparing them for the world? When they go from one rigid institution into another, when will they learn to innovate? When will they learn to disrupt?

Parents, please grow your girls to be difficult. Grow them to challenge. Grow them to fight.

We need them.


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