mamamusings: April 6, 2003

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Sunday, 6 April 2003

academic humor

More link-and-comment.

How sad is it that I found this post by Kieran Healy laugh-out-loud funny?

He wonders aloud at how Baudrillard or Lacan would describe his recent experience of laboriously removing layers of wrapping on a brand-new DVD only to find that the disc itself was missing from inside the case.

In the empty DVD, we see the externalization of the negation of the desire for wholeness. The desired-for fusion with the world that consumption represents is here inverted and its reality is brutally reversed as the hole in the self becomes the emptiness in the box. Jouissance is directly rather than subliminally denied as desire is focused on its tangible absence and not simply, as it always is, on its intangible presence. The chain of signifiers is broken at its strongest link.

Lovely.

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women and social software

I was mostly kidding when I posted about playing the gender card to get on some conference programs. Mostly.

But the more I’ve thought about it this weekend, the more troubled I’ve become.

Here’s some background. The grant that it looks like I’ll be working on for the next two years is part of NSF’s Information Technology Workforce (ITWF) solicitation. In the fall, when I was putting the grant proposal together, I gathered some pretty depressing statistics about women and computing. I also gave a talk about it as part of SUNY Buffalo’s Gender Week series. The talk was entitled “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?: Women in IT Education.”

What did I say?

I started with these slides, to illustrate the scope of the problem (yes, I know they’re hard to read at this size; you can view the full-size presentation on the web, or download the original Powerpoint if you prefer):

Gender Breakdown for CS Grads, 1998-2001 Gender Breakdown for IT Workers with College Degrees, 1990-2001

What does this tell us? First, it tells us that while the raw number of women graduating with CS degrees is rising, it is rising more slowly than the total number of graduates…meaning the (already low) percentage is shrinking. Second, it tells us that within the population of IT workers with college degrees (of any kind), the percentage of women has been dropping over the past ten years—at the same time that the industry has seen staggering growth.

Why do I think this is such a bad thing? Well, if for no other reason than that if we want to develop products that serve the needs of a diverse population, it helps a lot to have diversity in the groups developing those products. Russ Beattie had an interesting post on this not too long ago. One of the commenters on the post said:
The problem is that because men don’t understand women, any attempt to market specifically to women by men tends to go laughably wrong: in the same way as kids can spot from a mile off when adults are trying to “connect with youth culture”, even (or perhaps especially) when the whole thing has been carefully prepared with focus groups.

In his response to my post yesterday, Anil suggested that perhaps the reason blogging has caught on so quickly among both men and women is the significant role that women (like Meg Hourihan and Mena Trott) have played in developing and deploying the technology. Sounds plausible to me.

But when I look at the industry conferences related to social software, I see a distressingly small number of female faces. This month’s O’Reilly ETCON sports 58 speakers, of whom 6 are women. Just over 10%. And the much-hyped SuperNova 2003 lists 2 women among the 15 confirmed speakers. I suspect that SXSW Interactive was better, but there’s not a comprehensive speaker list to make it easy to determine that (there is a PDF program grid, and a quick glance shows what looks like a slightly higher percentage of women).

I know, I know—these conferences have open calls for presentations, and if women didn’t apply…well, shame on us. (And yes, I’ve now shamed myself into at least submitting a proposal for Supernova, though I won’t hold my breath.) But I suspect that many of the speakers on the list didn’t come knocking—they were invited. And I also think that it’s in the best interest of this burgeoning field if those in positions to affect the direction of future development do make the extra effort to broaden the range of participants in their programs.

This topic has come up for discussion on blogs before, with a lot of the debate occurring on Shelley Powers’ blog, in response to Clay Shirky’s “social software summit”. There were active threads here, and here, and here.

The threads included plenty of rhetorical finger-pointing, including the predictable “gender/race/etc is irrelevant, this is a meritocracy,” and, of course, “stop picking on the poor white men.” <sigh> I was particularly disheartened by Tim O’Reilly’s comment:
I also find the fundamental premise of this thread, that “social software” has to be written and thought about by a socially diverse group, rather parochial. The diversity Clay was trying to encourage was between people working on different types of social software - blogging software, massive multiplayer games, cell phones, enterprise collaboration. Not to mention the dripping irony that, with three women out of twenty-odd participants, this group was more sexually diverse than the typical computer geek gathering, and had participants from five different countries.

It’s hard for me to understand how the premise that we should seek and value diversity in the development of social software could be considered “parochial.” And I’m not sure Tim was aware of the irony in his own post—that a gathering with a 15% female rate of participation was significantly more diverse than the typical gathering.

But I was encouraged by Clay’s response in the same thread:
Gender balance was more complicated. I talked about this with some of the other folks I was asking for advice on attendees, and we made a concerted effort to invite more women than is the norm at these events. However, a higher percentage of women than men couldn’t attend (perhaps because a higher proportion of women were in academic careers, and couldn’t travel during the semester, though with such a small N, its hard to identify root causes.)

While Clay had perhaps the most reason to be defensive about the thread’s point, he was in fact one of the most receptive respondents to the main point Shelley was raising—and I was really, really encouraged by that.

Before the greek chorus makes its way from Shelley’s blog to mine, let me say as clearly as possible that this isn’t about bashing the power structure, or denigrating the men in it. Hey, I like men, really. Even white men. I’m married to one, I’m the mother to two, and I’m the teacher to literally hundreds of them every year.

What this is about is my wish that more women wanted to be a part of this process, and that’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If we want young women to become a part of this new world of tool development and deployment, we need visible role models. They need to see that there are real women in real jobs with real lives doing these things. The stereotypes of the industry are incredibly damaging in this regard.

What do we do? Well, I do what I can every day. I teach, I speak, I write, I try to create an environment that encourages other women to follow my lead. And every now and then, I do something like this, where I publicly ask my male colleagues to think about how they can be proactive in changing the mix.

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Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna