why should we care?


When I've written in the past about women and technology, or spoken with people about the small number of women in computing programs and professions, the response is often "so what?" So what if women aren't in the programs--if they're not interested, they're not interested. As one person wrote sarcastically in my comments, "Clearly [...] we must start forcing more women to become engineers! (Beware the use of a single statistic as an indicator of a complex system. Be-more-ware the tendency to take action based on such a statistic.)"

Margolis and Fisher must have faced similar questions, because they devote a large section of the introduction to this topic. They go beyond the obvious potential benefits to the women of the wider range of job options available to someone conversant with a range of information technologies. Here's the passage I found compelling:

In the long run, the greatest impact may be on the health of computing as a discipline and its impact on society. The near absence of women's voices at the drawing board has pervasive effects. Workplace systems are build around male cultural models, and entertainment software fulfills primarily male desires.

They provide several examples to illustrate this problem--voice recognition systems that were calibrated to men's voices so that women literally went unheard. Automotive airbags designed for male bodies, which resulted in avoidable deaths of women and children. Artificial heart valves sized to the male heart. They continue:

Along with technology's power come responsibilities to determine what computing is used for and how it is used. These concerns may not be on the mind of adolescent boys who get turned on to computing at an early age and go on to become the world's computer wizards. But these concerns must be part of a computer scientist's line of work. The conversation among computer scientists shold not be isolated to all-boy clubhouses; women's voices and perspectives should be part of this conversation. For this to happen, women must know more than how to use technology; they must know how to design and create it.

Theoretically, IT is more focused on these aspects of computing than traditional CS, which is one reason we'd expected that our program would be more attractive women. Thus far, it seems we were wrong. What remains to be seen is whether it's a function of the program itself, or a problem with the pipeline leading to it. I suspect both, but that's the point of our research. (New and far more detailed web site underway for that...stay tuned.)

(This is one in a series of entries from <a href="<$MTBlogURL$>">mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the "unlocking the clubhouse" category page.)


I'm sure the "pipeline" has a lot to do with the lack of women in computing. There are many things boys and girls are discouraged from doing because of the notion that a certain action is associated with a certain sex. These things are ingrained in us to the point where it's subconscious.

Tell a person that your friend Leslie is a nurse. Now ask him what gender he thinks Leslie is. I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.

I hope that any child I raise will be free to decided their own identity apart from the stereotypes and prejudices of our society.

Or maybe I'm just wishing that for myself.

Or maybe both...

Adam, I think many people wish that for their kids. But it's amazing how strong the societal pressures are, particularly after they reach the age of 5. The book does an excellent job of documenting and describing those pressures.

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This page contains a single entry published on July 31, 2003 12:28 PM.

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