Zuska (and by the way, if you are not reading her blog already, go right now and read it. She writes very passionately and very intelligently about gender issues in science and engineering) recently posted on women loving computers. The posts are very interesting. I responded to each of them in her comments, but now I'm inspired to share my thoughts with you as well. So, I'm going to repeat myself a bit from the comments, but also add some more reflection.
For me, computers have always represented possibility. The first time I really saw and interacted with a computer was in junior high, where we learned to do simple programs (in BASIC, I'm guessing) on the TRS-80. Programming was like magic: I type a few lines and the computer starts counting! I type a few more and a picture appears! If I type a lot of lines, who knows what I could accomplish! I was equally fascinated by the insides: the circuitry, the parts, the processor, the 1's and 0's parading around representing numbers and text and music. Computers really captured my imagination.
In college, I continued to be fascinated by what computers could do: Crunch a bunch of numbers. Design complicated circuits. Build models. Graph things. If I could use them for such simple things, like my course work, why, much smarter people must be using them for even greater things! Curing cancer, maybe, or desigining fuel-efficient cars, or ending poverty....
What really "sealed the deal" were two events that I remember vividly. One was my personal discovery of email. I was in the computer lab one day when one of my fellow major friends came running up to me. "Jane! You have to see this!" And he told me to click here and there and.....there was a message! To me! From him! (This is much more impressive when you realize that this was the very early 90s, and email had not hit the mainstream yet.) The second event was sometime in 1993. I was in the computer lab, idly clicking around, and I clicked an unfamiliar icon and up popped a web browser (Mosaic). I had no idea what this thing was, so I started clicking around, and all of a sudden I'm reading someone's home page from another school, halfway across the country! And it was then that I realized a new possibility: Computers could connect to each other, and could connect people. And the possibilities in that basic idea totally blew me away (and still do!).
You may notice that I definitely had a lot of passion for computers, but not in the "traditionally accepted" ways. I did not spend my childhood taking things apart. I did not spend my high school or college days up until all hours, programming away. In fact, for the longest time I abhorred programming, the direct result of taking a soul-sucking introductory programming course in college (that's a post in and of itself). I knew that my passion was real, but it took me a while to accept it as "valid".
Today, I see that same struggle in my female students---the few majors, sure, but also, and more importantly, in the many non-majors. My female students are incredibly passionate about technology. They blog. They design web pages. They hack their calculators. They program. They game. But, all of them will tell me that they "know nothing" about computers, that they're "not geeks", and they dismiss their skills and passion. As Zuska points out, they're struggling to validate a passion of technology that doesn't fit our picture of "geek". And that, really, is the biggest shame of all.