women and social software

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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.

8 TrackBacks

Non-Con 2003 from Burningbird on April 6, 2003 11:02 PM

Liz Lawley wrote a well-balanced and thoughtful essay on social software conferences and the unfortunate lack of women speakers at same: 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 iss... Read More

Non-Con 2003 from Burningbird on April 6, 2003 11:11 PM

Liz Lawley wrote a well-balanced and thoughtful essay on social software conferences and the unfortunate lack of women speakers at same: I know, I know�these conferences have open calls for presentations, and if women didn�t apply�well, shame on us. (A... Read More

women and social software from anil dash's daily links on April 6, 2003 11:27 PM

http://www.it.rit.edu/~ell/mamamusings/archives/000418.html... Read More

Women and gender bias from Deep Kuttings... on April 7, 2003 2:01 AM

After reading a few blog posts by some (so it seems) pretty respectable women in the social software community (stemming from Liz Lawley's post on women and social software), I've formulated some thoughts of my own and some points I... Read More

"the reason blogging has caught on so quickly among both men and women is the significant role that women (like Read More

Meg Hourihan wrote a comment in Liz's post about her own speaking experiences, and that her main reason for speaking at the conferences is to increase female exposure. I commend her for this, but her words did trigger a second bugaboo I have about wome... Read More

Perhaps it's an adaptive idea that I've predicated my interest in the Internet on, but a huge reason for my fueled passion in studies revolving around it was simply because it seemed inclusionary. I got the impression that with such... Read More

As I'm in the midst of writing a dissertation which is a feminist rhetorical analysis of gender and blogging practices, I've been assembling all the links I can find on the debates about gender in the blogosphere. Given the recent

Read More


Excellent post, Liz. Very well balanced, and well thought out, and written. Should send link to Clay and Tim.

Darn. I was in a pissy mood, going through my blogroll trolling for posts that I could add scathing comments to, but you've left me with nothing to say here but 'excellent'.

Guess I'll have to go bait a warblogger instead. Sigh.

Okay, Shell, you ripped me one on my suggestion that to make stuff for a particular market, it helps to have experience from inside. How is this different?

There. That should give you plenty of room for scathe.

Liz, I'd feel bad about my No-Con declaration now if I didn't know I'm not the role-modelly type anyway. Nicely said, and from your mouth to $CON-DEITIES' ears.

Cheers Liz! I've always thought that diversity is the way to go, and the world of technology could certainly use more voices and hands.

Until then, I sometimes worry that the women who do participate are positioned as a homogenous group (not-men) rather than as diverse individuals. We are a multiplicity...

And while it can still be difficult to publically discuss gender (or other social or cultural) inequality, I also do what I can as a teacher, a student, a daughter, a friend. Thanks for reminding me we're not alone ;)

But D, I ripped you a new one on the software for the restaurant and massage parlour business less than a week ago. There's a law -- no more than once per week.

You know, the great thing about a No-Con is that the ethnic and gender distribution of the non-attendees is representative of the audience.

And I said that with a straight face.

I'm just curious to know if all of this concentration on promoting women in the field of social software will prohibit ambitious men from seeking help from women like you? I happen to know that I'm very anxious to learn more about weblogging and to read all of your opinions on these subjects, but is there a pre-existing gender bias I should know about?

I know I've already talked to Liz and listened to her seminar about web semantics, XML and social software, and it sounded to me like there was an open world of opportunities for everyone (I will, however, point out that of the ~30 people there, maybe 5 were women, including Liz's mother).

However, I hope this focus on including women won't disclude younger, less experienced but still motivated men from becoming a part of this generation of software development. I don't want to have to turn to a man for every piece of advice I want on a project. In most cases, women are much more accepting and willing to help.

Am I wrong in my fear that this new angle will detract from me because you wouldn't be as willing to help a young man succeed over a young woman?

Not to worry, Brendyn, I'm an equal opportunity mentor. :-)

Seriously...I'm not advocating reverse discrimination. There's plenty of room for everyone who wants to play.

It's not a question of helping a young woman _instead_ of a young man. It's a question of finding the young women _at all_, and making them feel welcome when they appear.

For example, I was pretty encouraged the other night to see that there were women out with the ITSO guys, celebrating Jon's birthday. But that doesn't mean I'm any less likely to spend time with Jon in the future. It's not a zero-sum game for me.

Brendyn, having just finished a book on RDF, a stapl e of the Semantic Web effort, I can guarantee that young men aren't soon to become an endangered species in technology. Of the approximately 200+ people who I had contact with in regards to this book, there were exactly 3 women.

And there is exactly 0 women on any of the committees and working groups. In fact, the W3C has very few women on any of the committees.

I don't think young men need feel worried just yet.

This might be off-topic, it is a comparison of a musical sub-culture to the culture of IT.

In my town of Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a young woman named Max, who is generally thought of as one of the most serious female musicians in town. She started playing flute when she was 6 and has been at it for 19 years, and has expanded to other instruments.

At some point in the last 6 years she became fascinated with the sub-culture of small bands traveling the country doing small performances in very small performance spaces - often lofts and warehouses that are also someone's home, and the homeowner (actually renter or squatter) plays the role of host while the band is in town. These are dirt poor bands living a dirt poor lifestyle traveling around the country performing to 40 or 50 people a night.

Max decided to do her Master's degree thesis on this phenomena - how did the bands get in touch with these houses, how was the information distributed across the country? Word of mouth seemed to make the whole sub-culture work - a band of 3 might run into someone in New Orleans who would hear them and like them and invite them to come play in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

I got to read the rough draft of her thesis. She notes in passing that this sub-culture is all male - the whole time she was on the road doing research, she was the only female musician, the only one invited up on stage. The audiences are full of women - they like to come here the boys play. But to live in a van and travel the country and eat badly and sleep badly and perform for strangers every night was a lifestyle that attracted very, very few women.

The music industry in general is male-oriented (though willing to support some female stars) but this sub-culture was even more so. IT was pretty much 100% male.

Max herself is utterly devoted as an artist. Her devotion to the craft of music was something the men, the other musicians, picked up on and reacted to. She got invited to play everywhere she went. While she was here in Charlottesville, she could generally play with some band every night of the week if she wanted to, the invitations were ceaseless.

I haven't talked to her about it, because she made it quite clear that the gender issue bored her to death, but watching her experience from the outside I was left with the impression that the musical sub-culture which attracted her did not actively try to keep out women - rather, it seemed to crave female members, as was shown by the men's response to her. But there was a lack of interest on the part of women, a fact she noted in her thesis but didn't go into.

Max has recently moved to New Orleans and makes her living playing the flute on street corners. She tells me she gets good response from the street traffic and makes $100 a day.

I'm wondering if the computer world isn't somewhat similar to the musical sub-culture that Max studied - that is, perhaps the problem isn't an internal force which keeps women out (not that Lawley was saying this anyway, but it seems to be a widely assumed implicit argument whenever this subject comes up), but a lack of desire on the part of women to get in? And then, if so, why?

I've noticed the same thing as well Lawrence, basically that a lot of women in the IT field have picked this because it's more appealing to them (in terms of computers) than Computer Science, Computer Engineering or Software Engineering.

I get the feeling that a lot of women enter it as a default and don't have the passion for it that some men do. Don't get me wrong, there are the exceptions (obviously), but after talking to a lot of my female friends who are also incoming Freshman, I get the impression that they didn't know where else to go. Maybe they didn't want to conform to the standard stereotype of going into some other "more feminine" field, but didn't know what to do specifically. I won't pretend to understand the psyche of a woman for any amount of time, but this is seen a lot.

I'd just like to note that I'd be more than happy to see some men leave the IT field. I'm incredibly paranoid as a male in a field filled mostly with them about succeeding. I'd jump at the opportunity that woman have to emerge as key figures in such a brilliant field as IT.

I say power to the women to achieve in it, their intelligence doesn't fall below mens. I just think sometimes it's important to realize that women motivated in a field like this are pretty scarce and even if they exist in people like you, Liz, it's hard to encounter them as often as you'd like.

That's just my opinion and feel free to counter it if you'd like.

Lawrence: I think that notion is too simplistic. Although, I know that many senior computer scientists like to think that there's 'no problem with the field or the way things are done, it's just that women like to do other things.' I find this shortsighted and the lack of introspection I've seen in some very prominent CS professionals has been disappointing.

It's old, but check out Ellen Spertus' work on women in computer science from the early 1990s. Also, see Virginia Valian's _Why So Slow_ for an in-depth analysis of why the advancement of women is going to be a long, hard road.

Anecdotally, it's also not true in my experience, although I didn't have my enthusiasm for the field beaten out of me (metaphorically) until graduate school. ('hard' CS, not social implications, although I've done some work in the latter..).

Okay, _please_, no more "girls just aren't interested posts" by anyone who doesn't _first_ read my girls and computers post from January which addresses _exactly_ this topic.

It includes this quote from a NY Times article entitled "Where the Girls Aren't," which sums it up pretty well:

''When I started in 1972,'' she said, ''there were three girls in calculus out of a senior class of about 50. Now there are three sections of Advanced Placement calculus, in a class about the same size -- in other words, about 75 percent of the senior class. This would not have happened if we had bought into the reigning mantra of the time, which was, 'Boys are naturally interested in mathematics; let them do it. Girls are more talented in literature and history; why ask them to change?' ''

The bottom line is there are problems for women at all points in the pipeline, from elementary school to the workplace. The current grants funded by ITWF look at all of those points--in large part because of the efforts of Dr. Carolyn Wardle, the program director.

And along with that, there are success stories--just take a look at what Carnegie-Mellon has done, for example, with their _Unlocking the Clubhouse_ project:

In part as a result of our efforts, the entering enrollment of women in the undergraduate Computer Science program at Carnegie Mellon has risen from 8% in 1995 to 42% in 2000.

It's clear from those numbers that there _are_ things that the people in charge of schools, companies...and conferences...can do to change the gender gap. If they want to. :-)

Was that “Greek chorus” or “geek chorus”? Either way, I’m interested.

Oh gosh, I have so much to say and so little time, so I'll have to be brief. But to start with the conference note. I've been doing a tremendous amount of speaking for one reason only: because I got fed up with the lack of women speakers at tech conferences and decided that the best way to fix that was to do more speaking. It was seeing the pictures of O'Reilly's first P2P conference in Feb. 2001 that inspired me.

Since then, I've spoken in Europe and the US, from Alaska to Texas, both coasts, and lots of places in between. It's been exhausting. I've spent a lot of my own money to do it. I've been paid very little. And most of time I've been not only one of only a few women speakers, I've been one of only a small number of women attendees. It has been a great experience, and the thing that's surprised me the most has been the reception of the conference organizers. Across the board they've told me, "We want more women speakers! They just don't submit proposals" and "We don't know how to find them." That was heartening because at first I suspected some kind of effort to exclude women. But of course, it's more nefarious than that.

You're right Liz when you suspect that many people are invited to speak at conferences. That's true. And there are people that are on the circuits, which reinforces who's getting invited. Since it tends to be men, it's men who get invited to the new conferences when they start up, like Supernova (which I was invited to in 2002 and again in 2003. I declined for this year because my schedule is too crazy, so note that Kevin is trying to include women speakers).

But I think there's hope, based on my recent experiences. I know am getting many more speaking invitations, so many in fact I have to turn some down (in the past I accepted everything, to get more experience and exposure). Whenever I do turn one down, I try to recommend a woman as a replacement.

I heartily encourage you (and any other women reading who want to speak) to submit proposals and papers to every conference you can find. And hopefully together we can make a difference.

I wrote a bunch about getting girls interested in computers, and the role of women in technology back in August 2001 (there are a series of posts).

But Meg, and this is difficult to figure out how to say without causing offense, you're an ideal woman presenter for many of the conferences you discuss. You're the right demographic and you're inherently non-controversial. This isn't to say that you're not a good speaker and have something important to say -- you do or you wouldn't keep getting invited back. But it is to say that you've learned how to be a woman in the system.

I look at the male speakers at the conferences i used to attend, and I have attended more than a few. (I was one of the few women speakers at that P2P conference you reference.) There were the guys in the suits and the quiet geeks, but the speakers that made an impression were controversial and flaming and full of passion and right in your face. They jump out at you, bigger than life. They get into loud discussions with each other in panels and they swing their arms about and they speak with a zeal about their subject.

They reach off the stage and grab you by the throat. And you never forget.

And then I look at the women presenters -- dignified is what comes to mind. Not to mention appropriately dressed. Powerpoint presentation. Occassional panel moderator. Most frequently co-presenting with a guy.

I would settle for women making up only 10% of the speakers, if they stood out, broke the rules, made an impression. Shook the audience up to the point where all the "blogging it live" folks come away saying "Wow! Did you see_____!" "I can't believe what she said!"

Does no good to be there, if no one remembers us.

So to me its not that the women are making up such smaller numbers of presenters (though that's bothersome); it's that they aren't making a lasting impression when they are speaking.

I haven't heard you speak Meg, so you could very well be one of these who makes a huge impression. And I can't imagine Liz playing it safe if she were to speak at a conference. Or to be shy about grabbing the audience by the *****.

So the battle rages on two fronts: more women speakers (and attendees); and blasting the stereotype of the tech conference woman speaker.

To suggest that obnoxiousness and making a loud impression are the standards that women should try to hold themselves to is a step in the wrong direction, I think. It boils down to "act more like the (loud, obnoxious) men" which I don't believe is the correct model. Just because someone is dignified doesn't mean they're not making a valuable contribution. I don't think that getting a "Wow!" from the live bloggers should necessarily be one's goal. There are plenty of ways to 'make an impression' and to 'speak with zeal.' Moreover, I didn't know there was a stereotype of the tech conference woman speaker, so this is news to me.

We also have to be careful because there are many kinds of conferences and public events ranging from the very academic to the trendy-tech-toy-fest. There's no one model.

I also think that the number of women at conferences is a symptom of the problem, not the problem in and of itself.

Liz, I read your post (girls and computers) and it was definitely interesting. I do realize that, growing up, what girls are exposed to at a young age affects what they're interested in throughout their life. Maybe because of that they're not predisposed to being interested in something that's taught to them as being "male only".

I do admit that, in my online circles, most of the women "do the design" while the men mostly do the hard coding, networking and brunt work. Now, is that because we don't allow them or because they take more of an interest in the artistic/design aspect? I'm really not sure, I think it's harder to say, nowadays, than it ever was.

To be honest, I never really noticed the shortage. If you read my post on Women and the gender bias (it's a little rough around the edges but the point is semi-clear), I never thought that women weren't as prevalent as men are in the technology field (or even most fields for that matter). Like I said, I've had mostly women professors and women mentors and leaders who've impacted me.

I see Shelley say that the most obnoxious speakers stand out, and the more dignified (and percentage wise, women fall into that category) speakers usually go unheard. But I definitely connect to the words rather than the volume. If someone teaches me something, I remember them more than if someone jammed something down my throat.

Am I living in some dream world where women appear to have equal or in a lot of the cases more influence on what happens in the IT world? Do most people remember the loud presenters over the quiet ones? Am I completely disillusioned? If so, please help me break free of my concepts on women in technology.

"But it is to say that you�ve learned how to be a woman in the system."

I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean, or what the system is, since, like Medley, I wasn't aware there was a stereotype of the tech woman conference speaker. I'm just myself when I present at conferences, and having seen videotapes of myself speaking, I think I tend to be "bigger than life." I'm very passionate, exuberant, lively, extroverted, gesticulating a lot, etc. I'm not controversial for controversiality's sake. (Speaking of, how is it that I'm "inherently non-controversial"? I'm not trying to pick a fight, just curious.) I try to talk about topics that are useful, in the hopes that people will find value in my presentations.

But dignified? I don't think that's an adjective that anyone would use who's seen me talk. Appropriately dressed? I wear what's comfortable, which is often platform sandals, skirts and t-shirts if it's warm out. Powerpoint? Only if I think it will make my presentation more useful for my audience.

I agree with Medley, it's hard to make a lasting impression when there aren't many women speakers to begin with. It means that in a multi-track conference, the chance of people even seeing women speak is slim. And I think that's the real problem.

Ah, boys and girls -- I said passionate, exuberant, demonstrative, in your face, but I didn't say obnoxious. The description in that earlier post was from a presentation Clay Shirky did.

Brendyn, you ask "Am I living in some dream world where women appear to have equal or in a lot of the cases more influence on what happens in the IT world?"

Not a dream world, but also not one reflective of the industry. The IT dept at RIT is an anomaly--nearly a third of our tenure-track faculty (15 out of 48) are women, including our chair. So in our department, yes, women have a strong voice and presence. But in industry? That's not at all the case. That's why I provided those slides--to show the size of the problem. (Sorry, Shelley, but sometimes Powerpoint is a good way to to get information across. Not always, but sometimes. :-)

Shelley's right that the speakers we remember are the ones who take risks, go outside the box, are passionate and enthusiastic about their topics. That's not a gender-linked trait, in my experience. I've seen plenty of buttoned-down male drones giving tedious presentations--and I've seen some women give talks that make my head feel like it will explode. (Pop!Tech is particularly good at that. One speaker once said they call it PopTech because POP is what your brain does when you go.)

Medley, you say "I also think that the number of women at conferences is a symptom of the problem, not the problem in and of itself." But it's a chicken-and-egg problem. Where do we effect change to break the cycle? If professional women are visible and engaged in conferences and the public sphere, they become role models to inspire young women in their career choices.

"Shelley’s right that the speakers we remember are the ones who take risks, go outside the box, are passionate and enthusiastic about their topics."

Up to a point. Take TOO many risks, and go TOO FAR outside the box and be TOO passionate and enthusiastic... Well, having done these things far TOO many times to keep track, I can ASSURE You that You will not be remembered fondly.

(Thaz one reason why I've never be very prone to taking risks, amongst many other reasons.)

And the point, to me and a few others anyWay, isn't to be remembered, but to be passionate and enthusiastic and encouraging of people who want to IMPLEMENT solutions.. to change.. rather than JUST discuss a bunch-a stuff... To me, the point is what ACTIONS derive from the discussions. (And gender has little to do with WHO acts, though probably a fair bit-ta do with HOW a person acts.)

"That’s not a gender-linked trait"...


What's the opposite of a feminist? There are at least two: "Male chauvinist pig" and a Woman who IS feminine.. in the non-alpha-Female sort-a Way... (Dunno why anyBody would WANNA be "alpha-"insert-gender-here, but...;-) The point is that, until Males are *allowed* to comment without being cast as the archtype "male chuavinist pig" for expressing his Male-ness, I don't believe Yer gonna find much useful discussion on gender-relations anyhoo.

But why do issues, like this-un, tend to focus on the gender-issue when that is such a SMALL part of the issue...?

jt, that's exactly the kind of comment that I had hoped would _not_ migrate from Shelley's blog to mine.

Personally, I'm extremely offended by your presumption that feminism and femininity are diametrically opposed. I am an unabashed, unrepentant, unreconstructed feminist. I also consider myself to be quite feminine--although I'm not sure I even know what "alpha female femininity" would be.

The issue in this post *is* gender. And the issue is a lot more important when you're the minority rather than the maority. It's not the only issue--or discussion--on this blog, or on others. You don't need to read it, or respond to it, if you don't think it matters.

If you do choose to participate, however, I'm not sure how "expressing your male-ness" is relevant to the discussion.

"...kind of comment I had hoped would not migrate from Shelley's blog to mine."

Bit unfair to say, Liz. I'm not responsible for what others comment on your weblog, or mine.

However, I have just now dropped out of this topic, so hopefully won't be sending more comments such as these your way.

Shelley, I wasn't blaming you at all. But after all, you're the one who made the "fresh meat" comment on your blog. :-) You know better than most people that it's hard to control who posts in your comments--and I understood completely (but was sorry) when you turned yours off for a while.

“Personally, I’m extremely offended by your presumption that feminism and femininity are diametrically opposed.”

I didn't communicate clearly, then, because what I am *trying* to say is that they *aren't* diametrically opposed.

“I am an unabashed, unrepentant, unreconstructed feminist. I also consider myself to be quite feminine—although I’m not sure I even know what 'alpha female femininity' would be.”

I'm a feminist, also, of the male-variety. I would have no idea what alpha-Male masculinity is, either!.. (although I've been learning a fair bit from Halley on the subject...;-).

“The issue in this post *is* gender.”

That's how it started out, but then drifted into non-gender issues which, imv, were the more important issues identifying the crux of the matter. (jmho)

“And the issue is a lot more important when you’re the minority rather than the maority. It’s not the only issue—or discussion—on this blog, or on others. You don’t need to read it, or respond to it, if you don’t think it matters.”

We're /all minorities/, of one flavor or another, so I can relate to a LOT more than You give me credit for Liz. (Again, why it don't pay-ta go out on a limb and take risks.)

My legally-separted-not-quite-ex-Wife and I were discussing how Women are a minority in /many/ areas of business, not just IT..

..And in my partially-limited-view-of-things, Females (just like Males) are limited by their own mindsets a LOT more than they are by their gender. (And if You don't believe Males are limited by their gender, try being one...!...;-)

“If you do choose to participate, however”

Doubtful, past this post, for the reasons I said above... Don't see much reason to believe much of use will come from it, nor much point of focusing on the gender issue in the first place.

“I’m not sure how 'expressing your male-ness' is relevant to the discussion.”

I see.

Didn't read the entire thread, let alone all the blogs on the subject... Didn't understand this was a gender-related-issue that only Females had insight on.

Nonetheless, being Male: /Whatever/ I express is going to have a Male-quality to it, *if that's what You choose to focus on*... And apparently You did, Liz.

Don't fret Yerself, Shell. Regardless of whatever Liz was trying to imply, Your posting a comment here had little-to-nothing to do with my deciding to reply.. and Yer bowing out doesn't signify either... (Or I wouldn'a replied this time.) Liz has spelled it out clear enough to fer me-ta see that my comment was not appreciated, and my comments are not likely to be appreciated.

I say: Let thuh good times roll, and the blogSisters rule this discussion, then, if that's what You want...!

jt, I'm not saying males shouldn't participate, or aren't welcome to participate. But there's a big difference between expressing an opinion, and "expressing male-ness." I don't think my posts here are "expressing female-ness"--I think they're expressing ideas and opinions. And I don't want to shut you down for expressing yours.

I apologize if I misinterpreted your previous post--it looked to me as though you were saying that the opposite of a feminist was a feminine woman, and that rubbed me _way_ wrong. :-) Glad to hear that's not the case.

Yuh, not *hardly* the case... No apology needed, as I frequently don't express myself in a way that is understood by everybody.

(Hope to point out what fun it is being a Male, trying to talk about gender...;-) There are a lotta male-feminists, but somehow We come off as chauvinst pigs, unintentionally... Iirc, Gary Sauer-Thompson is another kindred spirit, in that regard.

But I haven't quite made m'self plain enough, in this respect: “I don’t think my posts here are 'expressing female-ness'—I think they’re expressing ideas and opinions”.

*Both.* Your ideas and opinions express Your nature, partially, in MANY respects in addition to Your gender.

Same as me, through no fault of Our own that I know of.

Btw, I'm glad this was (at least somewhat...;-) cleared up, Liz.

I'd not-love-ta see a misunderstanding like I had with Shell, where She looks at HerSelf as an archtype "peacenik" who is "anti-war"..

..When, in actual fact, people are not so shallow as to be adequately represented by archtypes or metaphors or any-a that "junk".

*NoBody*, and I mean quite literally not one single person, that I've ever met (virtually, or otherwise) *is that shallow*... The "pro-war" archtype doesn't exist either, nor any "collective unconscious".

Quoth Liz: "Where do we effect change to break the cycle? If professional women are visible and engaged in conferences and the public sphere, they become role models to inspire young women in their career choices."

True; that's a fair point. I guess my point is that there are lots of avenues through which one can try to effect change, and conference participation is just one. Conferences provide visibility which can sometimes result in influence. But influence can be achieved in other ways, too. So, my question is broader: What are the goals that increased conference participation by women would help us achieve? Increased implicit mentorship/role-modelling, as you've mentioned, is one. Influence on the course of a field is another. Presumably there are more. Are there ways beyond conference participation that would help achieve these goals, too? If, so what are they? And so forth..

(These are mostly rhetorical, by the way...)


I only looked at the charts briefly. Here's what I saw:

In the Information Technology industry, men typically have degrees, where a fewer percentage of women working in the industry have degrees.

If you have raw talent a degree is not required here in the real world.

That is true here at our Data Center and at other IT related shops. Some of our higher level positions are held by women who worked their way up years ago from the Computer Room to entry-level programming positions to the C-level positions.

Everyone is educated, but not everyone has a degree. Actually, all of the male Software Specialists here have degrees. Not all of the females have degrees. We have about 300 IT workers.

I'm not sure about the wisdom of trying to come up with, anything approaching, answers to rhetorical questions, but here goes nuthin'...;-D

"What are the goals that increased conference participation by women would help us achieve?"

Seems like that'd be sufficient goal unto itself: increased conference participation. The constraints, being financial and desire to attend, may be amenable to change.

"Increased implicit mentorship/role-modelling, as you’ve mentioned, is one. Influence on the course of a field is another. Presumably there are more."

The results from more Women attending conferences would be multi-fold. Don't know this actually needs to be Managed by Objective, though, for benefits to accrue.

"Are there ways beyond conference participation that would help achieve these goals, too? If, so what are they?"

Well, I'm one who is very strong against the unfounded meme that blogging solves ANY difficult problems... But I would say that dialogue is what You get via blogs, forums, emails, phone calls and conferences, and all that... So I'd say having one specific site to keep the topic(s) focused would help.

(Would also end the corn-fusion about WHERE people (Male and Female) could gather if they would jes perfer a cat-fight, too a'course... Could also section of a piece-a the action for those people (Male and Female) who wanna participate in a sausage-factory...;-)

I only know of one avenue through which one can try to effect change, that being changing one's mind, over the long-term.

All these questions /could, (and maybe should?)/ also be answered from a gender-specific pov, 'course... But I find most complex issues boil down to what I emailed Liz earlier:

"I may not have been clear, yet again, in my last response.

The MAIN point I wuz tryin'ta make was that I view Male and Female as SO full-a archtypes and metaphors, that it's difficult to EVEN discuss. Still enjoy trying, most-times, anyhoo...;-D"

So MOST-a whatever-solutions-are-derived from whatever-the-problem, are gonna be common to both Men and Women... Because, in the final analysis, both the Male and Female of the Species are, usually, just like "normal people"...;-D

"If you have raw talent a degree is not required here in the real world."

I've been told, quite a few times actually, that I have a LOTTA raw talent (and that it's REAL raw, at times...;-)... Did okay in the past, considering I dropped out one course shy of my Associates Degree in BDP... But have not found this "real world" much lately...;-)

Serisouly: Interesting question that comes up a lot.. the advantages of degrees and/or professional certifications, and the corellation to skill, if any.

To sum up, in closing:

The gender issue in IT is not altogether different than the gender issue in relationships, and in relationships, in general.

Ofttimes takes a looooong while to develop trust to turn "strangers" into "friends" or mentors or whatever. And in a big way, Males and Females are gonna be strangers to each other, which is a good thing.

Similar conflicts go on between Males, as well as between Females (as well as countries, to stretch the problem definition a bit). And, imv, the essence of the difficulty is that it is often a WHOLE lot easier to allow oneself to be hurt by "friends". Because the friends know Ya well enough to really get AT Ya, when it comes to infighting (for example, family quarrels), and "they always mean well" for Ya (at least, somewhat...;-)...

The gender problem at conferences and IT, in general? Ya match up people of both genders willing to give and take opinions... If (too many of) either gender is unwilling, and/or not willing to both give and take opinions..

..slow going.

Dunno this thread impacts much, one way or t'other.. but this is as good-a place to start as any.

But these things are simple in concept, (sometimes brutally) difficult in actual practice, so talk only take Ya so far, in my experience.

Thanks fer sharing Yer blog fer a time...:-D (A commodity I wish I had more-a, being time...;-)

Meg, take a look at the third chart in the full presentation, which I probably should have included a thumbnail of. It's statistics from the IT Industry Association, showing gender breakdown within sectors of the industry.

Women make up 85% of data entry positions, 60% of computer operators, 31% of programmers, 43% of "operations and systems researchers and analysts", and 28% of "computer systems analysist and programmers."

Better than the 10% I'm seeing in my classes, certainly, but still pretty far from parity.

The fact that "all of the men have degrees" where you work, but the women don't, is not surprising. When you dig further into the stories behind the #s, you find that women typically come at these positions in an oblique rather than direct way. I'm a good example of that--my degrees are in library science, and I ended up in the IT arena (like many other women) through what seemed to me like a series of unlikely and serendipitous events.

My focus is typically on the educational piece, since that's where I "live"--but it's not the only place where there's a problem.

"I ended up in the IT arena (like many other women) through what seemed to me like a series of unlikely and serendipitous events"

so did I.

I wonder if there's a way to understand and use that serendipity. not that I have any thoughts about *how*....

Two unrelated thoughts:

1.) This issue is probably best considered in the larger frame of "How to level the playing field between men and women." I suspect there are no, or very few, solutions to this issue that are specific to IT.

2.) Many of my friends spent their 20s drifting and trying out different things, and then, in their late 20s, decided to get serious about something, focused in on it, perhaps went back to school to get an advanced degree. Within this group (I know this is anecdotal evidence) the percent of women involved in computers seems fairly high to me. Is there something about the lifecycle of women, that would cause them to overlook computers in their teens and feel more at ease with the culture of IT in their late 20s?

I agree with the comment that women tend to get involved in IT indirectly. Of my female friends who now work in IT, none of them headed their directly, all of them got there simply because they went looking for a job, IT was hiring, they were brilliant, and so they were hired.

Mmm, not having to navigate primary-educational-system weirdnesses in one's late 20s, perhaps, Lawrence?

That can't be all there is to it, but it might be something.

Thanks for the chart. Wow.

"85% of data entry positions, 60% of computer operators, 31% of programmers, 43% of “operations and systems researchers and analysts”, and 28% of “computer systems analysist and programmers.”

Yes, it appears that I work in a different world. The 500 data entry positions that one of our customers once had no longer exist. I (obviously wrongly) assumed that the occupation was rare if it existed at all. We do not have data entry staff and there are no longer Data Technicians.

Our computer operators are balanced here, a few more men than women, I would guess.

The 28% of Computer Systems Analysts and Programmers fit our world.

However, at the next level up (we are called System Software Specialists here) is where the statistics change. All males have degrees. Not all females have degrees. Since we are a governmental agency the salary is under $100,000 for all workers. Men and Women are of course paid the same amount.

I need to study the charts again to learn more. And, I want to find out where those data entry people work. Off to research it...

By the way, thank you for enlightening some of us.

As a non-techie female, your world of IT and conferences is not mine. However, in the 70's I found myswelf in situations because of my politics and activism that resonate with what you are talking about here.

In the ponds in which I swam during those years, I found myself often the only woman or one of the few women present. Equality and diversity were big issues then and, because of the small numbers of women available, I was frequently asked to run for office, speak at a conference, be on a commitee, ETC, etc.

Whatever you want to think of someone doing - I was asked to do it more frequently than men who were equally qualified. Yet there was only so much of me to go around and I often had to decline.

Perhaps what you are seeing is (at least in part) impacted by the reality that the available women in the world of IT are already over-committed whether for personal and/or professional reasons.

As years went by and there were more women in the same arenas I was in, they to were asked to do things or volunteered to get involved and I found I was not as heavily burdened with obligations as before.

I suspect that things may look differently thirty years down the line in your arenas just like in mine.

It's very late and it took quite a while read all these comments but I want to just throw out a few of my guesses about all this. I've been a full-time computer professional since 1980. Have degrees in Psych, Sociology and MBA in marketing. Took quite a few computer courses along the way, though. First a couple facts about me for context.

I always liked computers - I like the "possibility machine"ness and intellectual stimulation of software

I like gadgets (I was a tomboy, have 2 older brothers with MAs in math - one's computer professional and my Dad's a systems engineer.) I never found math very interesting, but computers are very interesting to me - I like the application of them. The ease of creating. I'm an abstract thinker, so they are easy to me.

I was a relatively raving feminist in my college and early grad school days. I went through a man-hating phase. I was mad that movies were mostly about men. I was mad that my weight was SUCH a huge issue in determining whether I was considered dateable by men. I was made that being smart openly, was a turnoff for the vast majority of men. I was mad that there's very little in the way of a history of women or women in arts and literature. I was mad that women weren't expected to be creative, powerful, athletic and smart. I was made that I was expected to be a secondary player in life. After a few years, I calmed down and essentially got over it. I think I had good reason to be mad.

I pretty much decided to work in a male-dominated field because those fields pay more. I didn't necessarily think through all the negatives of being a minority and the negatives of dealing with stereotypes and being the token woman, etc. I also didn't consider ahead of time but ran into the fact that these good jobs in male-dominated fields were predicated on the job-holder having a wife to keep the household and social life going. I didn't have a wife so it was harder to come up with the energy to compete and excel and succeed as much as I wanted to.

So enough on me. Here are a few guesses:
1. Women are on-average more interested in social stuff, less interested in abstract stuff including computing. But there are lots of women who don't fit that mold.
2. I think the numbers of women getting into computing now are probably going negative because of the dot-com bust. Women were willing to go into computing - perhaps not their first choice all things being equal which they are not - because computers has been the hot career ticket. When that perception changed, some women who weren't really, really interested in computers, dropped it.
3. I DO think that if there were more cool pieces of software games and otherwise with more social elements - I at least would be more interested. I was immediately attracted to the concept of social software. I am also attracted to personal growth software though I've seen little to none of it. I think there's been less interest in these things because the field is male-dominated.
4. Whenever you are in the minority, it's more awkward and uncomfortable. Also, you are breaking the female stereotypes which has a social cost. You don't get as many strokes.
5. If you take the social role woman, it's complicated and includes mother, homemaker, wife, do-gooder, willingness to help someone succeed and play the subordinate role for starters. These role expectations, and some of them get internalized, have to be accounted for by women when they make career decisions. I think all this stuff leads to fewer women applying to speak at conferences - it's time-consuming and the expected return on effort isn't all that high. AND, as a woman whose gone to lots of computer conferences - it's a little isolated.

Here's what I would like to see. I would like to see people who are in a position of authority/power at these conferences, at universities, in the press, at game companies, computer hardware and software companies and men at large:
-be sensitive to a woman's plight.
-open your mind to see what's missing in the computer field because there are so few women, especially women in positions of power and influence.
-solicit input from women
-hire women in good jobs
-invite them to speak at conferences and make it easy for them - even give them special dispensation just so you can alleviate a bad situation and encourage the influx of new ideas, sensitivities and points of view that women can bring.
-fight for job descriptions that allow you and women to participate equally in family life and homemaking and careermaking

I could go on but it's way past my bed time. Thanks to those of you who've participated in making this a worthwhile inquiry and provided valuable information. Thanks for reminding me about this so I can keep it in mind - it's hard sometimes swimming in an ocean that has blinders on (mixed metaphor for sure) that don't acknowledge your experience.

I would like to be one of the movers and shakers in this new field called social software. Hello.




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on April 6, 2003 7:39 PM.

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