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September 25, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Putting Women in their Place

SALIENT sleuth Maxwell Sparks looks at the Computer Science department, one of the last male dominated areas of study, and finds out that as computers start to become the social space that we navigate in more and more, it’s a shame that there aren’t more women involved.

Computer ScienceOne of the first things anyone notices when they come to the Vic campus is that there are a lot of women around. In recent years the percentage of female students seems to be hovering around the 60% mark, and there is evidence to suggest that this follows a trend across all New Zealand universities. It’s a pretty safe bet that in many classrooms, the girls are outnumbering the boys. But not in all classrooms. Walk into any Computer Science class, and you’ll find the gender balance remarkably skewed, it’s not uncommon for there to be just one or two girls sitting on their own in an entire class full of boys. What’s going on? I wanted to find out, so playing by the rules of Gonzo anthroplogy, I fired off a bunch of email questions and began wandering the Daedalian corridors of the Cotton Building, looking for explanations.

To it’s very core, the computer is an instrument designed for communication, as much as crunching data, and anyone who uses the internet knows that software is crossing more and more social boundaries as networked technologies insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives. The original promise of the internet was a universal medium that lowered the barriers of participation for independent authors and producers. It was supposed to be as easy to write web pages as read them. In reality, it’s taken more than ten years for the web to even get remotely writeable, and even then, much of this potential is locked down in corporate silos. Utopian dreams of an architecture of participation have been irreversibly skewed by the millions of emo minions and indie freaks feeding free market research data into the malevolent maw of MySpace, or the hundreds of thousands of self aggrandising hipsters screeching social revolution on their blogs and scrambling like monkeys through the vast canopy of websites like Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!) and Consumating (now owned by News.com). Need I even mention the online massively multiplayer games? All in all, this is a world where everyone who plays is equally immersed, and women dominate as much as anyone. But if we drop to a lower level of abstraction, and consider the computer technology that enables these runaway social spaces to work, given the excruciatingly low percentage of female computer science graduates around the world, does this mean that all of this is actually being designed and built by men? It sure seems that way. Are you surprised?

Well I’m surprised, because some of the most important and revolutionary moments in the history of computer science actually belong to women, perhaps even more so than any other prominent academic discipline. The first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who was the first person to work on Babbage’s difference engine, one of the defining achievements of the Victorian era. Grace Hopper defied sexist military and institutional politics to develop the first language compiler in the early 50s, and then in the 70s Adele Goldberg was one of the leading figures in designing and implementing the first graphical user interfaces, foundations of the technology that Apple and Microsoft used to take over the world in the 80s. In an area that owes so much to the achievements of women, it’s remarkable that women have become a minority in the field. The explosion of the internet and social software seems like an exciting creative horizon that offers countless opportunities for making huge amounts of money or changing people’s lives, yet strangely enough these opportunities don’t seem to appeal to the younger generation today. The IT job market in New Zealand is expanding at a frantic rate, yet overall enrolments in computer science programs seem to be decreasing, leading to a glut of positions in the industry not being filled. This is compounded by the problem of the gender gap. The IT sector has a rising demand for talented women, and they’re just not showing up. Dr Peter Andreae, Program Director of Computer Science at Victoria, and author of several papers about the involvement of women in Computer Science education agrees that this is a serious issue with no clear answers: “When there were lots of jobs in Computer Science during the dot.com bubble, more women were attracted into the subject, presumably by the job market. When the bubble burst, the job market went down for a couple of years, but high school students haven’t yet heard that it has gone up again, and is expected to rise much more in the next few years. The country will desperately need lots of good software engineers, and we can’t afford to ignore the female half of the population.”

We don’t see coverage of the 25 year old men and women who’ve made millions from developing innovative social technology, but we do hear all about LonelyGirl15 or the latest Beyonce wannabe who points a camera at the bathroom mirror and becomes a short-lived MySpace star.

So much for the rhetoric of building New Zealand’s “knowledge economy”. Clearly, the secondary school system is not presenting young people with opportunities to engage in the creative side of computing. Frequently, the school curriculum ignores the constructive use of computer languages and exploration of tools and technology, preferring instead to focus on formulaic rote learning and premature specialization of subject standards, most of which has to be unlearned when students approach the tertiary level. Computer science involves a unique combination of art and science skills that doesn’t gel well with the current segregated school curriculum, giving it somewhat of an outsider status. Combine that with an NCEA ideology that aims to remove concepts like ‘university entrance’ and core subjects’ from the pedagogical lexicon, and you have a situation that doesn’t look particularly encouraging. According to Andreae, “if it were presented in high school as an academic subject with the same kind of status as other sciences, then that would definitely help enormously. The current situation, where the Computer Science/Software Engineering side of computing is mixed up with the computer literacy and text and information management sides of computing, is a problem. Both of the other sides are important and valuable, but they aren’t the same, and students frequently just don’t understand.”

Unlike subjects such as Law, Psychology, and the Physical Sciences, there is no predominant public or educational perception of Computer Science, leaving a void that is dominated by cultural assumptions from an earlier era that seem to bear no relationship to today’s networked world of communication. Just look at how the current ad campaign for Telecom broadband exploits a backward stereotype from the 80s, depicting the Xtraordinaries as socially retarded servile geeks, who exist only to placate Telecom’s customers who are depicted as selfish and greedy drones living in a utopian technological haze. And did you notice how the Xtraordinaries are all men? Further messing up the signal to noise ratio is the tendency of the news media to present the internet as a voyeuristic craze, rife with pop fakery and perverted individualism. We don’t see coverage of the 25 year old men and women who’ve made millions from developing innovative social technology, but we do hear all about LonelyGirl15 or the latest Beyonce wannabe who points a camera at the bathroom mirror and becomes a short-lived MySpace star.

“Computer science has no fiery rock gods, no intense mysterious creative types, no life risking firemen or life saving doctors. The Computer Scientist is some palid, badly groomed, excitable know-it all, who couldn’t save themselves, let alone me if the situation required it. I know that these stereotypes are bollocks, but they are pretty well ingrained in common culture.”
Pin Holland

This lack of influential role models could be one of the reasons why women are avoiding the subject. Some of the people I talked to definitely thought this could be a significant factor. Says MA student Pia Holland: “Computer science has no fiery rock gods, no intense mysterious creative types, no life risking firemen or life saving doctors. The Computer Scientist is some palid, badly groomed, excitable know-it all, who couldn’t save themselves, let alone me if the situation required it. I know that these stereotypes are bollocks, but they are pretty well ingrained in common culture.” So does the stereotypical male geek culture have an effect on the way young women perceive Computer Science? It might, but according to former Vic Comp-Sci student Jenny Stenhouse who now works as a game designer, it has little overall impact: “Most of the male geek culture is all bullshit anyway. Its generally a front, or you discover that being part of the geek culture is actually fun. The segregation between geek and non-geek is fading as a result of the inclusion of computing in every aspect of our lives.”

In fact, the absence of alternative role models has a lot to do with the very nature of design. When it works, it works so well that it’s practically invisible. We never think about the designers of the cars we drive or the architects of the buildings we ease around. So why should we think about the developers of the software we use to create and communicate? Most people are more than happy to view computers as magic boxes that sometimes do what we ask them to do (and oftentimes fail in mysterious and bizarre ways), and so they should. What stands out is that men and women often think about what they are doing in very different ways, and this has a big impact on the way that they approach computers. Numerous studies have shown that girls respond best to computer problems that have an obvious social or real world result – many boys are happy to try something abstract just to say they’ve done it, girls appear to be more interested in the reason or purpose behind it. It’s actually not particularly difficult to learn a computer language – certainly a lot easier than Spanish or Mandarin. The common perception of computer programming as being ‘difficult’, tied up with complex mathematics and arcane knowledge of circuitry is confused by the fact that in reality, it often involves more Art than it does Science. While there is a strong mathematical component involved, good software tends to look more like mindbending Escher drawings than rational symmetric architecture. Answers to many design and language questions more closely resemble Zen koans then yes/no options; it’s often normal to be both right and wrong at the same time. Mostly, it’s about learning to understand language and communication really well, and this is something that women generally excel at. But if these ideas of solving creative language problems are not presented to students at the secondary school level, how are they ever going to know?

Engineering is another subject suffering from a worldwide shortage of women, and represents an even more dire situation in some respects. Without skilled engineers, our entire urban environment including electricity, power, and gas would grind to a halt – indeed this is already predicted to happen to Auckland in the next few years unless a massive overhaul and upgrade of existing infrastructure occurs. As more and more kids grow up in the luxury of decadent consumer capitalism, it seems they’re becoming less and less conscious that all that technology in their lives that they take for granted is completely socially contingent – that the economy needs a stream of talented graduates to continue producing all this stuff and keep it working. And since it seems to be men that are responsible for the vast majority of war, destruction, and killing technology in the world today, perhaps the problem of finding more female engineers becomes an even more serious imperative?

It’s an unfortunate situation, but it seems clear that this is a significant issue that’s not going to go away. The school system is fucked, and until we sort it out, these problems are going to keep impacting on the university system, which in turn, will impact on our lives in numerous untold ways. It would certainly suck if it was only men building the next generation of social technology.

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  1. Alan Ta'alolo says:

    The Computer Scientist is more than just what was commented. I had the priviledge and honour working with SMSCS as a Senior Tutor for the Computer Science Department, I have a strong background in IT and Project Management, but working with these scientist was more than bytes and algorithyms. I am a geek reading this website in Afghanistan and serving Queen and country, So I maybe not the Rock star or Doctor saving lives, but I am an Ex Computer Science Soldier using more than a mouse, and making sure that no of you have to come here to serve.

    But hey its great to read Salient again, and VIC is still the best!!

    SMSCS for life.

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