What My Girls Camp Reveals About the Promise of Women in STEM and the Dangers of Online Hate

What My Girls Camp Reveals About the Promise of Women in STEM and the Dangers of Online Hate

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This past spring, I had the opportunity to develop a virtual cybersecurity camp for young women and girls called CompuGirls. CompuGirls was founded in 2006 by Dr. Kim Scott and introduces adolescent girls to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) through culturally responsive practices and social justice.

During one of our Saturday classes, I sat in one of the virtual sessions and listened to the group conversation about the dangers of cyber vulnerabilities. The instructor likened the protection from cyber hacking to the strategies that one might take when approaching their vehicle at night in an isolated area:

“Think about when you place your key sticking outward between your fingers, just in case someone tries to attack you,” explained the instructor.

Eyes widened across the Zoom boxes, their innocence captured on screen. “Wait, what?!” exclaimed a student.

“Yeah, you need to know how to protect yourself,” replied the instructor. This conversation was one of many that reminded our learners about the dangers that exist in physical and online spaces. Women worldwide are targeted at higher rates than men for online and offline violence. Yet, I wonder, are other affinity groups having the same conversations about safety online, and in the real world, in the same way that we are? Better yet, how are we promoting physical and online spaces that consider the complex and marginalized social identities our students hold?

This generation of youth, or “Zoomers” as they’ve been called, need clear guidance and instruction on safely navigating physical and online spaces. As a millennial, I emerged from adolescence with a relatively small digital footprint. Now, as a parent and teacher, I have never seen a generation with their physical, digital, and social identities so tightly woven.

Protecting Our (Online) Selves

Regardless of age or generation, my experience as an Asian American female on the internet is akin to the feeling of walking with your keys tightly balled up in your hand as you cautiously make your way to your car. I grew up with few models or examples of Asian American representation online. My friends and I spent our high school days on AsianAvenue.com, an affinity website for Asian Americans, to build community, yet we were perpetually exposed to the hypersexualization of Asian American women. Through adulthood, I built walls against “likes”, “DMs” and “pings” that targeted my Japanese screen name; at the same time, I was just grateful to have an online space where I could cling to my cultural pride through my username, [redacted].

As far as the students in this camp go, most, if not all, identify as Asian American and/or Pacific Islander (AAPI), female and non-binary. The localized structure of this camp, albeit virtual, brought together a unique affinity group of students with a common interest in computer science and a shared lived experience as AAPI women and girls. Unfortunately, the past few years have been marred by the rise of AAPI hate in the United States. Though Hawaiʻi has averted the majority of hate crimes and attacks, the narratives and accounts of the violence against AAPI women made their way across the Pacific. One in ten reported AAPI hate crimes reported in the past two years were online, and a quarter of attacks focused on individuals ages 25 and younger.

As I sat in this virtual space with students, I felt compelled to protect these students’ innocence and equip them with necessary skills to safely navigate our digital world. As most social interactions increasingly take place online, instruction on identity theft, cyberbullying and hypersexualization must be directly addressed in these learning spaces.

Safety Is Cybersecurity

Through partnerships with Arizona State University, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and the US Department of Defense, opportunities like CompuGirls have supported over 150 students across the islands of Hawaiʻi in the last two years. Reaching students across public and private school systems and alternative educational settings, the CompuGirls program is keenly focused on helping students develop the skills needed to become the next generation of technology innovators and community leaders from various ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that the internet can be a scary place sometimes, especially for women and girls of color. We spend time, effort, and funding to help our students see themselves as strong leaders in positions of power in their personal lives and future careers. In affinity groups like CompuGirls, we make the implicit explicit. In this case, that means being honest that vulnerabilities in cybersecurity are a new form of gendered violence that target individuals with complex, diverse and intersectional identities.

There is also a generalized notion of “overrepresentation” of Asian Americans in tech, even though the experience for AAPI women is less than illustrious. When data is disaggregated, Asian American women make up less than 10 percent of the tech industry. The data is even more staggering when you look at both the glass and bamboo ceiling for AAPI women fighting to end gender and racial stereotypes that stifle their leadership potential in STEM. Even more, almost 75% of Asian American women experienced racism in the last year and are typically the targets of physically violent crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguably, the media’s distortion of the AAPI tech experience harms AAPI women who cannot (and will not) continue to struggle in silos and silence.

This year, I spent most of my time in a public-facing role representing Hawaiʻi in the Teacher of the Year program. During that time, I received a higher proportion of one-way messages that focused on my physical attributes rather than my teaching experience. While my digital experiences trained me for these interactions, this frustration fuels me as a cyber educator. The value of computer science education is to allow students to be creators and developers of technology, rather than passive users and consumers. Engaging young AAPI women with a curriculum that facilitates honest dialogue about the histories and traumas of our digital experience creates paths for a more secure and safe cyber future for all people.

Allyship Is Cybersecurity

Systemic change takes time. While the careers we are preparing our current middle schoolers for should be rooted in diversity, equity, and inclusion, it will take much longer for the foundation to be built from equitable structures and policies. Regardless, it is imperative that we highlight and call out systems of power in every class, lesson plans and evaluation, starting today. The technology field can be a great equalizer when it comes to accessibility and creating a common language. However, we also have to be transparent about how it maintains systems of power that do not benefit our students and the future faces of STEM fields.

Our CompuGirls camp is just one example of how women are actively disrupting this narrative in multiple realities, both physical and virtual. Recognizing and resisting the violence perpetuated in online spaces through direct educational opportunities is a way for women to carefully hold a balance of our students’ innocence and scaffold awareness as we prepare them for a global world.

The autonomy to exist and thrive in online settings that we build into these programs will push the systemic change we demand. While the conversations can be uncomfortable and unfortunate, it is vital that I play a role in building allyship across ethnic, racial and gender spectra, and hopefully, becoming the role model that I needed when I was younger.

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