Learned helplessness keeps women out of tech

Katy Wills

I work for Technology Services at Whitman and it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. My co-workers are a patient, kind and thoroughly entertaining team of A/V nerds. During the daytime shifts I complete basic office maintenance tasks like organizing wires and chargers or cleaning projectors. It’s work that I learned how to do in about a day and doesn’t seem particularly challenging.

As an additional part of the job, a couple of times a week I set up and take down lectures, film screenings and other kinds of special events. I get to go to work and know that every shift I’ll learn something new about computer viruses, connection cables, troubleshooting and a plethora of other useful tools and tips. They throw me into situations armed with the little concrete knowledge I have, my boss’s phone number in case something goes wrong, and the tried-and-true advice that turning everything off and back on again works nearly every time.

I applied to work for tech services because I wanted to learn about technology. Every time I tell someone that I work for technology services I see their eyebrows raise and their heads cock a little to the side. They’re surprised and confused. This isn’t new news. You don’t see a lot of women behind the Helpdesk at Penrose Library or in the WCTS Office in Olin Hall. Technology Services is a male-dominated field.

While this is frustrating to me because I don’t like seeing stark gender disparities in any arena, what’s most disappointing is the response I get nearly every time I talk to a woman about my job. Not only is the woman surprised and confused, but she immediately tells me that she could never work for technology services. She tells me that she doesn’t know the next thing about computers and that she’s helpless when it comes to anything technological.

I don’t believe that women are naturally any less capable of turning things off and turning them back on again, so where did the perception that as a woman, you could never work in the technology world come from? Why is the response I get so incredibly consistent?

There are several answers to this question, but the one that rings most true to me harkens back to Psychology 110, when I discovered “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness essentially means that people condition themselves or are conditioned by others to believe they can’t do something. If you’re going on a family road trip and your dad always steps up to pack the car, when you grow up and have a family of your own, it makes sense that you’d default to your husband to pack the car because you think you don’t know how to do it. The same can go for a leaky pipe under the sink or a dead light bulb.

Until I started working for Tech Services, it didn’t even occur to me that I could figure out how to backup the files on my computer or run a virus scan without calling my dad to have him walk me through it. I realized that my learned helplessness in technology is just one of many areas that inhibit me from being more independent, efficient and empowered. It’s important to reflect on the areas in your life where you seek help before you even consider doing something on your own. One crucial way to achieve gender equality is for women to start asking ourselves what we can totally do ourselves even if the only people we’ve ever seen do them are our dads, brothers or the dudes behind the Library Helpdesk.