Computing For Women?

Why is computing such a male dominated arena? Peter Hayes investigates...

There is no doubt that the company world is sexually divided. If it wasn't, half the writers in this magazine would be women and if you walked in to any computer programming/software house half the creative people on view would be women.

The truth is that women are heavily underrepresented in all areas of the computer industry - and this becomes chronic in programming and hardware design circles. I have to admit that I've never met a female computer programmer in the flesh (although I know one or two female web designers) and my relationship with the industry goes back to the early eighties. They do exist - I've read interviews with them (their novelty value brings them to higher attention) - but they have never actually crossed my path. Mores the pity, because I have never always wanted to know why computer programming is of interest to so few women and why the person in question was an exception to the rule.

To my reading of computer history, the only woman to have made a significant hands-on mark in programming was Erna Schneider. She actually created one of the first computer patents back in 1971. This dealt with non-mechanical telephone switching and her ideas and methods are still reflected in telephone exchanges todays (most of the lists of “famous women in computing” - such as www.top25.org - tend to dwell on the academic/administrational side of computing. Certainly any such list looks poor when measured against female endeavours in areas such as journalism, politics or literature).

Looking in to web sites that help women get to grips with technology such as the Association of Women in Computing ( www.awc-hq.org/livewire ) GameGal ( www.gamegal.com ) and Silicon Sally ( www.siliconsalley.com ) provided me with a few answers to my central question, however the repeating theme was that the “men that run the industry” were to blame. However top marks for at least encouraging women to get involved with computers and fighting for clearer language. However AWC's view of “computer language is sexist” was not convincing; jargon exists because peers want to talk in shorthand, it is when such language is applied to non professional texts that it confuses people - I can see no direct gender issue in this.

Traditionally women have preferred education/professions that focuses on the human rather than the mathematical, electronic or the mechanical. Without a solid mathematical grounding there is no chance of progression in programming or computer hardware design. A point that many texts on women and computing tend to skim over for fear of seeming insulting. Graphic personnel operate through software that requires learning, dexterity and imagination; but is not such a high mountain to climb. However even this kind of work requires background knowledge about data storage and security, avoiding viruses and screen formats, etc., etc (if you went to an interview for a computer based graphic position it doesn't sound very clever when you tell the interviewer that you don't have/use a computer at home).

Naturally the simple use of computers I far from single sex or sexist. Women use computers in the workplace as often as men, in fact office work has become a woman's professional stronghold. Help desks and information centres often seemed staffed (sic) by women.

However, can it be argued that few women have any real love of computers or that all important drive to find out all about them? I once discussed this with Sir Clive Sinclair and his theory was that boys develop a fascination with how things work and by nature want to take things apart - while girls, in the main, don't. That doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions and I wouldn't suggest that women that become involved in hardware/software design are naturally worse than their male counterparts. All research on the subject says they are not - and this goes for most other “traditionally male” professionals as well.

One of the traditional problems is that the educational system lets boys take over computers and rule them. Put three girls and three boys around a computer and the girls get pushed back. Perhaps we need the subject to be taught separately and, at times, with a little more care (this is a problem of computer education anyway, it should always be one child, one computer. However the education system has been generally slow at realising that computers cross subject boundaries and are not merely a solitary subject).

Equally people need to have proper career guidance, there are a lot of new opportunities in web design, DTP and computer graphics support that many careers officers know little about. Computers allow creativity and communications that should, on the face of it, have appeal to both sexes. The Internet has plenty of cross sex appeal and has (thankfully) resulted in many more female computer users. However if more people could only get a proper introduction to the subject I'm sure the situation would improve.

If you argue that the industry is too male orientated and too sexist (and the sites I looked at certainly do) then it is surely a cue of women to design support and information that deal with their particular needs. If they cannot make it clear what the unique problems of female computing are I cannot see how we (as males) can help...

Agree? Disagree? Any thoughts on this hot potato of a topic? Then address them to Helping Hands and we'll print the best letters we get...

(C) Peter Hayes 2003

 
   
Last updated 7.3.2007