Imagine the old woman in your life. Maybe she lives in a cramped apartment like yours, or across your suburban fence, or on the other side of your county road. Imagine what she thinks about when you say “the Middle East.” As someone who loves and has lived in the region, when she hears that phrase I want her to think of brave people innovating, changing their nations and the world. But I do not believe that is what she will think of; I fear the old woman in your life will see an ISIS agent beheading an American citizen.
Now imagine what she sees when you say the word “Africa.” Though I have never been south of Cairo, I have friends sprinkled across a cross-section of the 47 countries on continent. I want her to think of the start-ups, the female heads of state, the diversity and the growth. But I fear when she hears the name of that continent, she sees the fly-specked eyes of a child she could “save” for only $.39 a day.
Now imagine what she thinks of when you say “geek.” Probably Steve Jobs or the kid from War Games. The geek in her mind is white, male, wealthy, from the West coast of the United States. As a woman in technology, I know and hate that this is the image that rises in the minds of most people when I say “geek.”
These images are clearly wrong. They are false. They are bad. But they are powerful. The old woman in your life didn’t imagine them in the dark cupboards of her mind. These images–the Middle Eastern terrorist, the starving African child, the always-male coder–are coined, honed, and constantly repeated in our media, our conversations, our politics. Unless we insist on better images, they smooth the way for policies that dismiss suffering outside our borders as inevitable. They scare investors away from smart, thriving countries. They discourage women from pursuing careers they might love dearly.
These bad images are strong. I believe truth is stronger, if we tell it right.
You know the images in people’s minds can change. The old woman in your life has lived to see an African American Professor become president. When she first fixed an image in her mind to the word “President,” it was probably someone who looked like Dwight Eisenhower.
The old woman in your life has lived to see female Secretaries of State. She has lived to see the information flowing over fiberoptic cables weave people together to build entirely new forms of identity. What did “Redditor” mean when she was a child? Googler? Blogger? Nothing. But these new words mean something now, describe communities that change the world.
I believe images in people’s minds change because their friends change them. Because people with relationships and bette knowledge share an alternate, true image of what is means to be from a nation in the Middle East, from a country in Africa. Because “geek” can come to mean a Palestinian woman who became the first female licensed ham radio operator in Gaza:
“Geek” can also refer to the founder of 2 companies in South Africa:
“Geek” could respectfully refer to any one of the 54 other examples Alumnae of the TechWomen program provide in the playing card deck TechWomen Emerging Leaders from Africa and the Middle East. So could the words “leader” or “technologist” or “professional.” Women in the deck have completed an internship in a top Silicon Valley company and received high-quality mentoring through the program, all compounding impressive resumes they built in their home countries.
I helped the alumnae of TechWomen design a deck to showcase the achievements of some of their many alumnae not only because I have been involved with the program since Katy Dickinson (my Mom) signed-on as process architect at the beginning. I spent evenings and weekends after my day-job working for the chair of the Washington state house Budget committee designing, managing production of, and explaining this cool deck.
I designed this deck because I cannot stand the false images the old woman in my life has of the people who live in the Middle East and Africa. I am so tired of how narrowly defined “geek” or “technologist” or “leader” are in her mind. And because I believe we can change people’s stereotypes, unknit their (often unintentional) bigotry, by sharing better images and stories.
This is not the first playing card deck showcasing inspiring women in technology, or even the first such deck I worked on with my Mom. Last fall we worked with a friend at Duke University, running a Kickstarter that raised over 500% of its goal for a deck of cards showing off the faces and achievements of Notable Women in Computing. We sent that deck to eager educators in nearly 100 classrooms around the world and recently saw it covered in Business Insider. We’re seeing it change minds, just like the TechWomen Emerging Leaders in the Middle East and Africa deck will. One educator we gave a deck to said:
“So with the semester having started, I finally was able to hand out the first donated deck to one of my star students. Picture is attached. I teach at Kentucky State University, which is an HBCU, so I was looking through the deck for african-american women to shuffle to the front (hard to see in the picture). Turns out I never knew about the awesome story of Katherine Johnson. One more role model to add to my class pep talks! Thanks again for the donation. I have a couple of more students that are very deserving recipients for these and I’ll hand them out as the semester progresses.”
That educator now has a broader series of images when he thinks about what it means to be a geek (Katherine Johnson is pretty amazing).
The TechWomen Emerging Leaders in Africa and the Middle East is to my knowledge the first card deck in the world to honor technical women in the Middle East and Africa. Like in the images above, it includes 54 examples of living, exciting, inspiring women from countries the old women in our lives perhaps do not associate with technical innovation. It showcases women who rightly should be the first images that come to mind when someone says “Middle East” or “Africa” or “geek.”
To ensure the people represented in the deck approved of it, Mom carried 50 posters and 30 decks of cards with her on last month’s TechWomen delegation to South Africa. The reception was intense–and positive:
Government officials and teachers and women in the deck were intrigued and excited and honored by the deck when Katy and others presented the cards and posters to them. They said they could think of immediate uses for the deck, both to teach sorting functions and the reality that women–South African women, Lebanese women, Rwandan women, Yemeni women, all nationalities and specialties of women–have always been important to the development of technology.
Though we only printed 30 decks for that trip to South Africa, we’ve since printed 125 more and have them to sell. You’re welcome to print a copy of the deck or poster yourself (everything is Creative Commons-licensed), or to buy one at cost here. We want these decks to travel far and further.
The TechWomen Emerging Leaders from Africa and the Middle East Deck is a part of my contribution to the work of ending bigotry. The deck showcases technical women from Africa and the Middle East because they deserve better than the ugly images in the old woman in your life’s head. We used a deck of cards because social justice can go down like candy and not just like kale. It is free to download because the old woman in your life is probably on a fixed income.
Think back to the old woman in your life one last time. Think about sitting down to a game of Hearts with her. Think about her holding up her hand–careful, where you cannot glimpse it–and seeing woman after woman after woman who are emerging technical leaders in the Middle East and Africa. Think about sharing some of their stories. Think about her seeing Queens and Kings and Aces and deuces and threes, all technical women, all from the Middle East and Africa. Think about the next time she hears the phrase “the Middle East” or the word “Africa” or “geek” and how she’ll think of Mai or Nomso or Zimkhita, rather than those ugly slanders.
The old woman in your life can play with these cards and learn. The women and girls in your life looking for inspiration to consider or continue a career in technology may find it in this deck. And the urgent truth that women have always been important globally is written on every card in this deck. Check out the deck, let us know if you have questions, and remember: mind change, but only when we change them. This deck can help.
PS: This deck would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of all of the women pictured in it, as well as the committee that ensured it came to life:
- Katy Dickinson (TechWomen Mentor, “Notable Women in Computing” team member)
- Eileen Brewer (TechWomen Mentor)
- Arezoo Miot (IIE TechWomen Program Director)
- Jessica Dickinson Goodman (social media and design expert, “Notable Women in Computing” team member)
- Jill Finlayson and Julia Lovin (Council Co-Chairs of the TechWomen Alumnae Organization, and TechWomen Mentors)
“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”
— Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the U.S. Navy’s oldest active-duty officer at the time of her retirement, developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language, developer of UNIVAC I and COBOL, and coiner of the terms “computer bug” and “debugging.”