As a teenager growing up in the New York City Projects in the 1980s, Shireen Mitchell ventured where no young black girl had ventured before: the local video arcade. "The store owners tried to kick me out because I could beat anyone there with a quarter, so they weren't making any money," Mitchell says. "I couldn't imagine anyone who didn't like tech—that was my world. But in 1984, I was the only female there."
Today the company Mitchell keeps outside the arcade is not that different. A social-media consultant, diversity advocate, and tech nonprofit founder, she still often finds herself the only African-American female on IT teams and at conferences. Only about a fifth of science and engineering managers are female, and even fewer make it to the board level of prominent high-tech firms.
"Even if the door is wide open and unlocked," she says, "if someone walks past the room and peeks in and sees a bunch of white men, they'll wonder if they're welcome. Until everyone understands what it's like to walk through a door when the people inside don't look like you and wonder why you're there, we still have work to do."
For Mitchell, this work comes in the form of Digital Sisters, an organization she founded to provide young girls early exposure to technology and, even more important, an environment that encourages their passion. Mitchell remembers her own youth: "In high school I had all the tech savvy, but I had counselors that would try to gear me toward something other than tech." Without creating silos, she says we need to close the gap between the support women and men receive when interested in technology. "We encourage boys more in these spaces because we anticipate their success, even if we don't see it yet. Whereas with girls, we wait to see their success before we believe it."
Today, plenty of people have become believers in Mitchell and are starting to practice what she's preaching. Jon Pincus, former general manager of strategy development in online services at Microsoft, has recruited Mitchell to work closely with him on his new Seattle-based startup, Qworky. "Most software is written by guys for people like themselves. Even if it's unconscious, it seeps into everything," Pincus says. For this reason, he's tapping Mitchell to help him design Qworky's technology, culture, and Internet presence to be more inviting to a diversity of users from the get-go. "One of her real strengths is that she balances the tech aspect, the social aspect, and the political aspect. You can usually find someone who can do two of those," Pincus says. "It's very rare to find someone who can balance all three."
As Mitchell looks out over the technology horizon, she sees more and more opportunities for women, particularly in social media. They take as a starting point the way people organize information and think socially, and design technology around those interactions—which Mitchell thinks is perfect for drumming up greater female involvement. "It will not only attract more girls," she says, "but it will speak more to the things they're good at."
Among those things, according to Mitchell, are patience, meticulousness, and an instinct to make sure something works perfectly before handing it off—traits, she points out, that were part of the reason why many of the early programmers in the 1940s and 1950s were female. "When it comes to tech, especially design, I can tell you without question that girls are better at it," Mitchell says. "We wouldn't have a version 6 with bugs still in it. Women wouldn't allow that."