At SQL Saturday #75 Columbus, OH, on June 11, I had the distinct pleasure of moderating the Women in Technology lunch. The topic: “Energizing the Next Generation”. The panel: Jen Myers (blog | twitter), Sarah Barela (blog | twitter), and Erin Stellato (blog | twitter). The room: packed. The audience: awesome.

If you haven’t been to one of our lunch panels yet, this is what you need to know: a group of women in technology sit up at the front of a room, talk about their experiences, and answer questions and foster discussions with the audience. The goal is to have an honest discussion about what women bring to technology, what challenges they have, and how to encourage women and girls to get involved in technology.

I started by having each of the panelists talk about what they are currently doing in technology, and how they got into the field. Who would have thought Erin, who has a master’s degree in Kinesiology, would be a Database Engineer? Jen decided to get into web development because she saw it as a challenge.

One of the first questions I posed, and opened up for dicussion, was, “What are ways we can get girls and boys interested in technology?” A few suggestions were given.
Alice – http://www.alice.org/ – A free 3-D program that teaches object-oriented programming.
First Lego League – http://www.firstlegoleague.org – A robotics program for 9-16 year-olds that teaches them about science, engineering and technology. Also: LEGO ROBOTS! How much cooler can it get? (Disclaimer: I have judged FLL competitions. I think they are AWESOME.)
TechCorps Ohio – http://techcorpsohio.org/ – This program connects tech resources to schools.
Girls In Tech – http://www.girlsintech.net/ – GIT exists to engage, educate and empower women in technology. They mentor girls in grades K-12 and have a university program as well.
Girl Develop It Columbus – http://girldevelopitcbus.com/ – A place for women and men to go to learn programming in a relaxed atmosphere.

The overall theme that came through was that kids need to be exposed to technology in all its facets, encouraged to play with it and learn about it if they’re interested, and mentored in whatever it is they are interested in pursuing.

One interesting question that a woman in the audience posed: she was a coach on a FLL team. At the first meeting, four girls showed up. At the second meeting, one girl. By the third meeting, none came back. What can we do to keep girls interested? Suggestions were things like bringing a friend that they trusted, having the boys tell them they wanted them there, and having a talk with the girls about how they felt about it.

One man at the back of the room had some interesting points as well. He said that in the 1980′s, there were a large number of TV shows dedicated to lawyers. In the 1990′s, law schools saw the number of applicants and graduates increase. But, there are no high-profile, strong technology characters that people are exposed to right now. We need to market IT to kids, and other adults.

He also mentioned that the word he would use for the one girl that showed up to the FLL team meeting, alone, is “courageous”. We had a great discussion about that.

Another person asked why women in technology wanted to be treated differently. A different audience member said, “There’s a difference between being treated differently and being treated fairly.” I think this is a point that we can all take to heart. Men and women are different, as are people with kids and those without, or new college grads and people close to retirement. We will be treated differently, but we are really just striving to be treated fairly.

And with that, we had to wrap up the entirely too-short hour we had. This was a great discussion that I hope energized people and made them think. The one thing I wish I’d had at the lunch was someone else to live blog it, or at least takes notes for us. I feel like I missed so many important points and resources!

Make sure to look for more Women In Technology lunch panels at other tech events, including SQL Saturdays and PASS Summit! You can find more information at http://wit.sqlpass.org/.