Do you want to be a princess, a frog or a witch?

As a child I was fascinated by fairy tales.  I have read all the fairy tales I could find – Grimm, Andersen, 1001 nights and many more.  In retrospect I wonder what it was that I loved so much about those stories. It was not just the happy endings – most of the Andersen stories are pretty gruesome and the tale about the red shoes made me cry terribly! It must have been the feeling to be carried away in a non-existing universe in which magic is normal and can be used for good or for bad purposes depending on who uses it and how skilled they are. 

But there was something about the fairy tales that bothered me. I could not relate to the princesses. Their primary qualities seemed to be beauty, servitude and a caring nature. When they were trapped or imprisoned they could not save themselves but were dependent on a strong and good-looking prince to come on his white horse and set them free. And none of the stories ever told what happened during the ” happily ever after ” period. The character of the prince was never elaborated. We assume that he was a loving husband but he could as well have left her at home to care for their ten children while he went out hunting with his mates!

Disney’s princesses have evolved over the years from traditional damsels in distress into proud, independent and strong young women who are not afraid to take leadership or to participate in a fight. I like that! It is important that young girls learn to be confident that they can be what they want and can make the difference. For the same reasons I like the Barbie “I can be” series. Barbie can be an astronaut, president of the United States ( who knows – it might happen one day… ), a veterinarian or a computer engineer. 

I have two Barbie-I-can-be-computer-engineers in my collection. They were not for sale in the normal toy shops in The Netherlands. I found one in a department store in Beijing close to the hotel where I was teaching a two-week class and the other one in a specialized Barbie collectibles store. What does this tell us about the perception that Dutch girls have about their future jobs? It is not very likely that they see themselves as a computer engineer nor is this encouraged! 

The percentage of women in IT professions worldwide was around 25% in 2016. In Europe this percentage was even lower, only 20% and The Netherlands took the cake with only 17%. The percentage of women in IT professions is incredibly low in comparison with the overall percentage of women in the workforce. And the percentage of women with technical IT professions is even lower. An internal investigation in my own company in region Benelux in 2010 showed that at that time the percentage of women in core technical professions was under 10% of the total population in those professions. 

The Deloitte study referenced below discusses four factors that influence the percentage of women in IT professions : (1) the lack of gender diversity in the education pipeline, (2) the unbalance in the hiring and recruiting process, (3) unequal paying and promoting opportunities for women versus men and (4) the failure to retain good women. All these factors are “technical”. The effect of role models that you can relate to is not mentioned. And yet that is incredibly important! If little girls cannot relate in any way to a career in IT, the education pipeline will stay as it is.

Disney understood quite well that little girls want to be the princess of the play! They want to have adventures with their friends, they want to socialize. Has anybody ever seen a princess who was a computer engineer, a geek, a NERD? The best you can hope for as a NERD is to get the role of the frog – that poor creature that has to do all the work and never gets the rewards that it was promised… It fetches the golden ball from the pond and is not even allowed to sit next to the princess at the dinner table. How will it ever transform into a good-looking prince (ahum….princess)?

In spite of the transformations in the character of the princess, I still don’t think of myself as a princess. But I don’t want to be a frog either. Another interesting female fairy-tale character has received considerable attention in recent years. It’s the good witch. One example is Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter tales; another and in my view better example is Tiffany Aching from the disc-world novels. Both are young witches. Extremely powerful women who are not afraid to be different and have Personalities with capital “P”. Professionals too. They say what they do and do what they say, they make things happen, they cooperate with the communities around them to achieve their goals. And they are masters of multi-tasking!

We need more of these ladies in business including in IT. We need them to advise and work with the princesses, the kings and the frogs. It is that diversity that will benefit everyone!

For more information about the numbers referenced in this blog see Deloitte – 2016 predictions women in IT and Computable – Feb. 2016. For the Tiffany Aching novels see Tiffany Aching novels -Terry Pratchett.


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