Dec 4, 2012

How to promote female 'geek' vocations

By Cristina Ribas, Associate Professor, Pompeu Fabra University

Could Linux, Facebook, Apple and Google have been created by women? I think they could, but the fact is that the most visible faces on the internet right now are still men. Does this have anything to do with women's reluctance to consider themselves, and indeed refer to themselves, as brilliant or ‘genius’? Or is that geek culture is too distant from the prevailing sexist education? I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to the reasons, though I'm sure that both of these have an influence. What is clear is that the consequences of the fact that very few women are creating and influencing technology are very negative, both for women themselves and for society as a whole. As is the case in so many other fields, not only is it unfair to limit decision-making powers and participation by relegating women to simple consumer status, but also shutting women entails a huge waste of talent which could be focused in new and innovative directions. What can we do to make the culture and vocation of technology more appealing to women?

«It is unfair to limit decision-making powers and participation by relegating women to simple consumer status, but also shutting women entails a huge waste of talent which could be focused in new and innovative directions»

First of all, greater visibility needs to be given to the female protagonists of the history of technology to shatter the image of their presence as unusual or impossible: Ada Lovelace, the mathematician daughter of Lord Byron, regarded as the first female programmer; Betty Jean Jennings and Fran Bilas who, amongst other things, programmed the first ENIAC computer in the 1950s; plus all those anonymous women who worked tirelessly at Bletchley Park deciphering codes during the Second World War, who cyberfeminist Sadie Plant paid tribute to in her book Zeros and Ones. In the same way that the industrial revolution was woven by the hands of women in the textile factories, so digital workers were also women, according to Plant.

We can also find women in senior management positions in many iconic internet companies, such as Marissa Mayer, who shone at Google and since July has been president and CEO at Yahoo, and Sheryl Sandberg one of the most successful executives in the digital business, currently at Facebook. It is also worth pointing out that even though there has been a drop in the number of engineers and computer technicians in the United States, we are seeing innovative start-ups led by young entrepreneurs, as explained by this article in USA Today.

«Something is not working in the educational system because there are very few girls with a geek vocation, who want to become programmers»

Who knows what we might be losing if there are fewer women programmers and entrepreneurs, as we need new strategies to help us transform the world, society and the economy, with the help of ICTs. This happened in the field of primatology, which had a before and an after, when three women introduced a new study method by sharing the habitats of groups of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The "trimates" —Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birutë Galdikas― managed to understand the behaviour of these simians which are most closely related to humans as never before. One of the keys to this was that they considered human integration in the group of animals, a method that had not occurred to any male researchers.

There are many more examples of women's input in traditionally masculine sectors. For example, many years ago the sociologist Carme Alemany found that the washing machines designed mainly by men had numerous wash programmes, of which only two or three were ever used, while solutions to practical problems, such as how to make a wash stop if the colours start running —which are technologically simple to resolve― were dreamt up by women designers. Some engineers, such as the Colombian Inés Restrepo often think along different lines in order to tackle the same problem. Restrepo dreamt up a system of harvesting water in local communities using small gutters built in a network by each inhabitant, without the need for huge, costly and environmentally-damaging dams, which had been put forward as the only solution by the (male) engineers in her country. All of us benefit from new solutions from fresh perspectives. Another contribution might be a change of leadership, from the purely transactional short-term and predominantly masculine perspective to a transformational type of leadership with other goals that focus more on creating long-term value, as explained by doctor Sara Berbel on the subject of women's leadership.

Caption from the EU video campaign Science: it's a girl thing!
Furthermore, we need to move away from the stereotypes featured in campaigns such as the European Union initiative to promote scientific vocations among young people. This controversial video, which ended up being withdrawn, showed women among make-up and microscopes, as if they had to trivialize research to make it appealing to women. Psychologist Gemma Altell, on analysing this case, highlights two important questions. On the one hand, what do we need to change in the educational system to make girls more interested in science and technology? It is obvious that something is not working because there are very few girls with a geek vocation, who want to become programmers. And, furthermore, how can we stop fuelling the prejudices that make us judge women —and not men— by their appearance, and how do we reinvent what it means to be a man or a woman in the 21st century, casting aside the androcentric models generated thousands of years ago.


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