I built my first website when I was 10.

It was 1995, so my website featured blinking neon banners and pictures of pandas.

Making it was cool, and I liked it.

Fast-forward a few years and I’m in my high school computer design class. I’m the only girl. I’m treated differently – as if I am unable to understand the concept of the work. My teacher offers me back rubs and talks about how difficult the course must be to an “arts” girl like me.

I aced the class – and had no desire to code ever again.

I’m still passionate about high-tech, digital media and design. I work in the tech sector, but I’ve never explored developing or engineering. I decided, fairly early on, that it must not be for me – even though I liked it and showed aptitude for it.

Working at Communitech has given me the chance to revisit my early love for technology, and has made me see possibilities I’d given up on. But there are still issues in the tech industry that women struggle with.

At Communitech I’m in a position to help find solutions. I’m lucky to work alongside some amazing men and women who believe in the Waterloo Region ecosystem. We’re passionate about supporting talent – including women.

This week a Twitter user asked what we were doing to be more inclusive of women in the tech sector. It’s a question we get asked regularly. And it’s one request we struggle with: for there to be “more women in tech.”

More female speakers at conferences. More female CEOs. More female coders. As if the solution was so simple.  As a woman I find it insulting.

If there isn’t a token woman keynoting, it’s sacrilegious, and for some, a reason to boycott.

While I enjoy seeing, hearing and learning from women at the top of their professional game, I don’t want conference organizers to book a woman, any woman, just to fill an expectation. Who learns from that? Who wants to be that person?

I’m done with being a token. I don’t feel respected being a token, and I certainly don’t want younger women to grow up feeling what I felt.

The problem isn’t that we don’t have women in coding or leadership roles. It’s that these are the only roles seen as legitimate to qualify as a “woman in tech.” I’d love to eventually run my own business, but I’ll be damned if I’m trotted out to every event like a caged animal if I become successful.

The problem isn’t just that there aren’t enough women in tech, enough women as founders, enough female speakers at conferences. It’s that we aren’t helping women embrace a life in tech when it counts: during the early stages of their schooling and careers.

For starters, we should make sure no girl is marginalized and talked down to for exploring her interests – to say nothing of sexual harassment.

And I think we need to start nurturing these interests at a young age. In today’s education system, children are told they can be anything.  However, we are so cautious telling young girls that they can be anything that we forget to tell them to be something.

Maybe, just maybe, we need to let our girls and boys play and learn, and forget about what could happen if girls like dolls and boys like trucks. Or vice versa. Maybe we need to let 10-year-old girls build websites that feature pandas and sparkly ponies, and embrace the whole package – that girls, and women, can be creative and prosper in tech-related pursuits without having to choose them over other interests.

Of course, there’s much more that can be done in the workplace as well, and this also needs to be encouraged. We can look to people like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg – multi-faceted women who aren’t founders, but worked their way through a career and have been incredibly successful. These aren’t women who follow the myth of the university dropout turned multi-millionaire.

And instead of insisting that only those who have been coding since 13 can be founders, I think we can benefit by seeking talented women to nurture and groom at all stages of their career. We can build the skills in women who want to become founders, CEOs or anything else they can imagine.

Communitech, through initiatives such as the Women in Technology Project and the Business and Education Partnership, can play a role in these efforts, as can the companies in our ecosystem.

As for me, I want 10-year-old Kayleigh to realize it didn’t have to be an either-or situation – that she didn’t have to choose between tech and arts. And that it’s not too late to for her to run her own company.

Kayleigh Platz is a storyteller and researcher for Communitech. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.