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Media portrayals of women in tech: Google joins non-profits to drive change

Google, EIC, and the NCWIT are offering a new award for the best portrayal of women in tech. Here's why the award wants to change the perception of women in technology.

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Image: Google

Some of the foundational innovators of modern computer science were women. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper's work led to the development of the programming language COBOL, and actress Hedy Lamarr worked on the technology that would lay the groundwork for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Computer science wasn't always a field dominated by men, but the number of women in the field has dropped steadily since the 1980s. Concurrently, pop culture depictions of women in technical fields have begun to rely on stereotypes of women as helpless without a male counterpart.

In fact, Mattel recently released a Barbie book that seemed to imply that women cannot work as coders. According to Ruthe Farmer, chief strategy and growth officer for the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), this image of women in technology is a big problem when it comes to getting women involved in tech careers.

To tackle this problem Google, the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC), and the NCWIT are joining forces to offer a new award for the best media portrayal of women in tech, and they want you to help nominate the contenders.

"What we're looking for are nominations of portrayals of women in technology that are positive, realistic, and reinforce the idea that this is a place that women can work and be successful, and be considered contributors to society," Farmer said.

Farmer has worked with the EIC in the past, which is known for its SET awards that focus on positive media portrayals of STEM in a positive way, but not with a gender component or a focus on computer science.

When Google got interested in women in computer science, she said, Farmer recommended partnering with EIC to put together the award which would become part of the greater SET awards. The SET award operates on a fall cycle, so the "Portrayal of Women in Tech" will be offered independently now, but it will fold back into the regular SET awards cycle next year.

According to Julie Ann Crommett, Google's program manager for computer science in media, Google's philosophy behind partnering with NCWIT and EIC was to increase visibility of women in tech roles.

"Both internal and external research tells us that career perception accounts for so much of a girl's decision to pursue computer science," Crommett said. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of popularly-held misconceptions about the tech field — for example that it's not collaborative or does not have social impact — which has been known to drive girls away."

While recognition is a part of the goal of the award, there is a bigger picture in changing behavior. By recognizing these portrayals, Farmer hopes it can encourage media creators to continue digging into these characters.

"If people can get recognized for something, they pay more attention to it," Farmer said. "So, we'd like to see more of that in the future as well."

According to Farmer most people, especially kids, are bombarded with messages everyday about what is right and wrong for certain people. And, she said, if you never see a positive portrayal of a technical woman, then it can give young girls a consistent message that "you don't belong here." That lack of belonging, she said, creates a hurdle for young women who want to get into a technical career in computer science.

Field such as criminal justice, forensics, and law have benefitted from an increase in female characters, and Crommett is hoping that this award can do the same for computer science.

"Our hope is that by dispelling stereotypes and identifying positive portrayals of women in tech we can do for CS what CSI did for the field of forensic science, changing its gender make-up and increasing its appeal to a wider audience," Crommett said.

Diversity in technology jobs is definitely a heated discussion point right now, further fueled by a host of major tech companies releasing diversity statistics earlier this year. Often, the conversation centers around women in leadership roles at major companies, but even at the top there are differing opinions.

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg is known for her outspoken views on women in tech, while Yahoo's Marissa Mayer has avoided the conversation. Regardless of their views, this focus on the few women executives in tech has skewed the conversation, according to Farmer.

By focusing on the few women that made it to the top, she said, it's making it seem like everything is ok. Portrayals of people in certain roles tend to be more consistent in everyday life. So, Farmer said people should celebrate the women who made it, but still seek to normalize the concept of women in technology.

Interested parties can nominate candidates for the award right now by commenting on the video in this Google+ post. You can nominate a writer, a TV or movie character, a YouTube star, or anyone else you think does well to represent women in technology. Official voting will happen in February after the top ten nominees are determined.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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