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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

March 12, 2012 at 9:59 AM

Facebook director on women, computing and careers

If video games can inspire boys to study computer science, perhaps Facebook can have the same effect on girls.

Something has to change because the number of female computer-science students has mysteriously fallen since the mid-1980s, when nearly 40 percent of the majors were women. Lately it’s been less than 20 percent, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

That’s despite concerted efforts by Microsoft and other software companies to draw more women into the talent pipeline.

Now Facebook is taking a crack at this puzzle, flexing its newfound stature and influence.

“I am quite hopeful that Facebook can do something to turn the tide — that we have enough cultural influence at this point that we can influence the next generation of teenage girls to consider computer science,” engineering director Jocelyn Goldfein told me last week.

Jocelyn headshot (2).jpg

Goldfein, 36, leads the product team working on features such as news feeds and photo and video services. She’s among about a dozen directors, including two women, who collectively manage Facebook’s engineering.

A Stanford graduate who grew up in Northern California, Goldfein previously was vice president of the desktop business group at VMware in Palo Alto, Calif.

Goldfein is a great example of what women can achieve in the tech industry today, but I was curious to know how she ended up on that path. It sounds like computing was probably her destiny.

With a father who managed computer scientists and a mother who worked in finance, “computers were always around the house,” she said in an interview at Facebook’s Seattle office. “We read science fiction, had geeky friends, geeky pursuits.”

Goldfein recently found a copy of her birth announcement, which humorously reflected the ’70s mainframe era. She recalled that it said “a new programming unit has been added to our family. Dad’s in charge of programming and Mom’s in charge of production control.”

Goldfein and her mother played video games together, but a greater influence may have been her late grandmother, a mother of five who worked as a bank teller to support the family after her husband left.

“This woman did logic puzzles for fun; she would solve Rubik’s cubes as a hobby,” Goldfein said. “The logic puzzles you get in crossword-puzzle magazines — with the dots and the X’s — she taught me to do those when I was a kid. It was sort of an epiphany when I got to programming. It’s sort of the same thing.”

So Goldfein’s mind worked like her grandmother’s?

“Exactly,” she said. “I think we would find there are a bunch of people working in accounting and finance who, in another life in an alternate universe, could have been software engineers. I think that there’s a lot of similarities in what your brains do.”

(Here are some game suggestions from Goldfein and others)

Despite the stature of Goldfein and other women at Facebook, I wondered if the company has trouble recruiting more after the depiction of founder Mark Zuckerberg in the movie “The Social Network.” Goldfein sharpened her tone when I brought that up.

“The funny thing is there’s lots of things that are just sort of factually inaccurate about that movie, but I think the fact that it portrays Mark as a misogynist is one of the greatest pieces of slander in it,” she said. “There’s actually proof of this, which is Mark has been monogamously in a relationship with one woman for the entire time, including today.”

Goldfein is the mother of two young girls, so I asked what she’s doing to be sure they feel computing is open to them. “I think the biggest thing you need to do for all girls — and not just mine — is have role models out there,” she said. “That’s why I think Facebook can make a difference. Teenage girls are using Facebook, and so I think it’s meaningful for them to hear about women engineers working at Facebook.”

That helps address “stereotype threat” — the effect of women avoiding things they perceive are for men. “You look in the room, you see all men, you assume that’s for men, not me,” Goldfein said.

Still, Zuckerberg remains the face of Facebook, just as other major tech companies are all identified with their male founders.

“Mark’s face is on it, but actually the news feed that you use was built by a woman, the photo viewer that opens up when you click on a photo, that was built by a woman,” Goldfein said. “An enormous percentage of teenage girls, I would posit, are on Facebook and using those features passionately and devotedly, and probably take a more personal interest in the idea that they could mold those things, they could shape those things.”

It will take generations for women to account for 50 percent of computer-science majors, Goldfein said, but she believes it’s possible.

“Considering that women are 60 percent of undergrad degrees these days,” she said, “I’m really looking for a 60-40 representation to be proportional.”

Could it happen in her lifetime? “It could,” she said. “Another generation or two, and it could tip. Law and medicine tipped so fast. The majority of law grads and medical-school grads now are women.”

Goldfein’s grandmother would be part of the shift if she were growing up today.

“Absolutely, she’d be a computer scientist. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Goldfein said. “She would have had so much more opportunity today, but I think it’s rather impressive what she did. She’s definitely an inspiration.”

Comments | More in | Topics: careers, Education, education

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