Saturday, August 05, 2006

RANT: On being a female "hacker"/network security professional

What is it that makes men, especially "geeky" men, act like complete idiots around a woman who shares their interests? This week I have been attending BlackHat and DefCon conferences in Las Vegas. Both are conferences focused on Network security and hacking.

Over the course of BlackHat, a more organized and professional conference, I was approached on more than one occasion to be asked which company I represented at the vendor plaza (meaning, obviously since you are a reasonably attractive female, you are a booth babe!). Upon hearing that I was not a "booth babe", such men tended to tuck their tails between their legs and walk away. Over the course of the conference, I was gawked at, followed, pointed at, and made to feel like a novelty and second class citizen. How dare a woman come to their conference!

Next on to DefCon. The attendees at this conference were not the problem. I did get some unusual looks, but DefCon attracts an interesting demographic -- said demographic does not include straight-laced preppy blonde women but rather goth/punk/counter-culture types. I expected to look out of place, so this didn't really bother me too much. The comments from the hotel staff, however, really irked me.

"What's a girl like you doing at a hacker event"

"Oooooh, a beautiful hacker. Come here beautiful hacker, I have deals for you"

"Heh, what are women doing here? Isn't this some computer-type stuff?"

All of these incidents combined make me wonder if women really have achieved as much as we would like to hope in the fields of science and technology.

About 4 years ago, I volunteered with Girls, Inc. teaching technology skills to middle school girls and trying to spark interest in technology. The first comment any of the girls said to me was "Well, you're too pretty to be a computer scientist".

All of these attitudes about women and technology, math, engineering, and science have to change. Women bring incredible skills to all of these fields. And contrary to dinosaurs like those I encountered this week, women excel at these fields.

This has really pushed me to join an organization for women in technology, perhaps WITI ( or ACM-W. The only way women are going to make progress in the fields is to increase visibility and band together.

In the meantime, I will start working with the Girl Scouts through GirlsGoTech--a program to encourage girls' participation in math, science, and technology. I had great role models as a girl to encourage my intrest in computers, and I hope that I can help some girls to further their interests and perhaps some day pursue a career in technology.


Fake Rake said...

Come on, nobody ever accused geeks of being overly confident around the ladies. And the fact that women are a significant minority at Blackhat and DEFCON means that the geeks tend to not know how to deal with them. Are they somebody's girlfriend? Are they actual geeks also? Etc. I remember my geekier, less confident college days, and I'm not sure I would have had any idea how to deal with a pretty female geek back then either, just because I never knew any.

From what Gadi just said before his DNS talk, it sounds like there are a lot more women here at DEFCON this year. This is my first time here, so I'm not sure how things were in the past.

LMac said...

Being a geek does not give one the right to annoy the women present. Also, there are plenty of women outside the computer professional community, so why does the presence of a few women at a hacker conference automatically make it okay to be an annoyance?

I'm married to a geek--in fact, he's far more geeky than I ever was. He always treated me kindly and with respect when we met and afterward. Geek is not synonymous with socially inept, rude, annoying, etc. In today's society, geeks are going to have to learn to deal with social situations more effectively. Companies want well-rounded employees, not uber-geeks who hould be kept in a dark room and thrown some work every so often.

Anyway, this problem is not limited to Blackhat/DEFCON. Not being taken seriously in a professional environment just because you're female is something that still happens. Women have a long way to go for equality in technology fields.

Anonymous said...