Building a computer is a labor of love. Researching, shopping, and assembling can be a months-long process and can bear a months-long bill. But the first time you hit that power button, you’re met with an overwhelming sense of delight and satisfaction, and a fierce commitment to keeping your new creation in tip-top shape.
We’re made to believe women aren’t the ones building PCs, however. When something goes wrong with a computer, the Geek Squad or Genius Bar denizens are default male-at least according to pop culture.
But it’s not that women aren’t building–it’s that we’re not talking about it and we’re not doing it professionally.
Though women are half the population, we occupy less than a quarter of U.S. STEM jobs. Some of that disparity can be explained by the problem itself; women are often bullied or pressured out of their professions. Even women who are graduating with science, technology, engineering, and math degrees aren’t necessarily landing jobs in their respective fields. Too many folks are stuck on the idea that hardware, especially computer hardware, is a man’s world, and without representation in the fields, we don’t encourage girls and women to get their hands dirty or pick up a screwdriver. For women in the PC gaming world, that can create a real obstacle to building our own rigs.
But there are women gamers taking matters into their own hands, and bringing their own PCs to life.
Two such pioneers are Katie Gall and Mellissa Richmond–both gamers who decided to take initiative and not let social pressure discourage them from building PCs, despite the challenges they encountered along the way. I wanted to learn how both women had overcome social barriers and stereotypes on their path to building their respective PCs, and what advice they had for women hoping to get into the hobby for the first time.
Richmond had spent several years borrowing her father’s gaming PC, but without permission to install the games she really wanted to play–MMOs. When she enrolled in art school, she finally had a good reason to invest in a beefier set-up.
“When you’re in the market for something like a bookshelf, and you go to Target to see how much they are and you see that you were way off in your estimation, you kind of tilt your head and think ‘…I could totally just make that for way cheaper.’ I did the same thing with my computer.”
Her goal was to have a machine that would be able to play a majority of games on Ultra settings without having to upgrade for a while. She based her hardware on the spec requirements of her favorite games in tandem with her budget, and away she went.
For Gall, building has been a long-time hobby. Along with PCs, Gall has been repairing phones, Nintendo DS systems and laptops for several years.
“I’ve always loved taking things apart and figuring out how and why they work and then seeing if I can put them back together again,” Gall said, in an email interview. “There’s always been a sense of satisfaction in creating something. Understanding the machines we work with everyday seems like a no-brainer to me.”
Most recently, she’s built a machine that can handle the requirements for upcoming VR systems–specifically the HTC Vive. Gall welcomed the opportunity to refresh her build in light of the steep specs, and to build something that reflected her personality.
But she hasn’t always had the best experience gathering her components. “[It’s] always simultaneously funny and a bit tragic,” she says. While browsing an Australian components shop, “The guy who was serving me spoke to me in a very condescending way. He would point out components and say things like ‘You’ll want that one because you’re a girl.’ He asked me if I knew what I wanted several times and expressed incredulity when he asked who was building it for me and I said I was.”
Richmond says that she had some good experiences, and some bad. At one retailer in particular, the employees were educational and helpful, but they also seemed unsurprised when she wasn’t sure of the answer to some of their questions.
“I felt like the employees–who were all male every time I went–were testing my knowledge. That they were expecting me to slip up and show that I don’t actually understand computers,” she says. “I went in with my brother a few times for stuff he needed for his machine, and if he didn’t understand something they would just talk to him as a friend and fill him in. With me, it never felt like they saw me as a peer or an equal. I definitely felt like I had to prove myself.”
Putting a PC together can be fairly intimidating. Connect a cable to the wrong component? Fry your motherboard. Underestimate your wattage requirements? Bye bye, PSU. Now your whole system is without power. But despite occasional snags, both Gall and Richmond found the assembly experience to be enjoyable.
“I knew that computers were very much like shape sorting, but I was surprised at just how uncomplicated it can be,” Richmond says. “I always thought that I was never smart enough to understand how a computer is built, but YouTube, my dad, and just recognizing patterns were all the tools I needed.”
“I find the process really fun, I especially love mini magnetized screwdrivers; they are lifesavers,” Gall says. “When I first started building I used to remember what was connected to what by singing a little song to the tune of ‘Dem Bones’: ‘The graphics card’s connected to the motherboard, the power board’s connected to the motherboard… Oh wait, they’re all connected to the motherboard.’”
Gall also attributes her success to having great friends that supported her through the process. And Richmond nods to a family of gamers around her.
Having a support network provides a huge head start to learning any new skill, but like gaming itself, women don’t seem to be leaning on others for support in their hardware adventures. The majority of all online forums and help sites are populated by men–notably, one of the most popular is called “Tom’s Hardware.” Don’t get me wrong, Tom’s is a lifesaver, but what if it was Tracy’s Hardware instead?
In order to bolster the networks of women builders, we need women experts, women community voices, and women networks. We need to set precedent for our aunty to call us when her printer breaks or the internet won’t go. We need our little sisters to think our LED fans are pretty cool.
In the meantime, for the women building those connections, constructing a gaming rig is an empowering experience.
“It was definitely a big boost to my confidence knowing that I had done it all myself,” Richmond says.