Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

24 Mar

Ada Lovelace

Today is the second annual Ada Lovelace Day. For more information about who Ada was and why she has her own day, please see Finding Ada.

To help promote and celebrate the first event last year, I pledged to blog about the achievements of women in technology and science, and I fulfilled that pledge. I’m doing the same thing this year…hence this post.

Obviously, if one reviews the inconsistent posts in both my personal and professional blogs, one will see that the issue of women working in technology is one of my personal passions.  So, I’d like to take the opportunity of this post to explain why that is.

First, I am a woman, and I work in technology.  But, it wasn’t until I enrolled in grad school a few years ago that it became a passion.  I took a class on “Gender & Computing” that really opened my eyes to the inequalities that exist for women with technology…and it’s not just for those who work in technology.  There are also plenty of negative stereotypes about women using and understanding technology, much less fixing it (which I used to do) and designing it (which I currently do).

I guess that’s a good thing that it took 13 years for me to become aware of the issues.   That says a lot about my employers.  While I’ve always been in the minority at my jobs, I’ve been extremely lucky to have mostly supportive bosses. I also have to admit that I benefit from the inherent privilege of being white and middle class.  That’s why it took reading about people who were not in my situation to open my eyes to ‘the problem’.

And, now as I write this post, I find myself struggling with how to define ‘that problem’.  It’s just so huge and complex, it’s hard to give it the right words.

For one, as I mentioned before, there are negative stereotypes about women’s ability to understand and use technology.  An easy way to see this demonstrated is to go to YouTube and do a search on “Women and technology”.  The results you’ll get will mostly be videos of women misusing or struggling to use technology.  However, if you do a search on “Men and technology”, you get no such results.  Now, misogynists might argue that the reason is that only women have problems using technology. But, because of my work on a helpdesk, I know that for a fact it is not true.  I took calls from many, many men who did not understand how to use computers.  This transfers to other kinds of technology…what images does the term “women drivers” conjure in your head, yet which gender has higher insurance rates because it’s more likely to be involved in crashes?

There are many studies out there that show the number of women entering technological fields, and the number of women staying in technological fields, continue to decrease.  And, there are many theories as to why. One is that women just don’t have the aptitude that men do when it comes to things like science and math.

And, as a result, women don’t deserve to make the same salary as men.

And, there are many, many, many more, but the one that irks me the most is the stereotype that ‘women just aren’t interested in technology’.

That notion is really just way too simplified and doesn’t look at the issue deeply enough.  Yes, there are fewer female computer programmers and mechanics.  And, a lot of girls in middle and high school will tell you that they don’t have a preference for those things.  But, the question we should be asking is WHY DON’T THEY? Where does this preference (or lack thereof) come from?

An interest in technology is not a given. Boys don’t come out of the womb ready to create a character in WoW and rebuild a Corvette engine.  What humans define as ‘interesting’ is shaped by society.  It’s called ‘social constructionism‘.

Every day we see and experience things that shape who we want to become.  Sometimes it is subtle, like the fact that on the boxes of toy construction kits, there are always only boys pictured playing with them.  Sometimes it is more harsh, like the caller who laughed at me when I told him I was the third-level helpdesk technician and not a secretary.  A young boy is much more likely to be asked to help his dad repair, while the girl is much more likely to be asked to help her mom cook.

That’s where these “preferences” come from.  They aren’t caused by X or Y chromosomes; they are caused by the beliefs and actions of the society we live in.

We can’t change the chromosomes, but we can change society.  Increasing the numbers of women who work in technology is just one way. There are many other ways, I’m sure.  But, lets start small, shall we?  How about we all first agree to  not blindly accept that ‘women just aren’t technical’?

That’s why I am passionate about this issue, and I invite you to join me.

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Posted by on March 24, 2010 in Rant


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