Ian Bicking: the old part of his blog

Feminist Computer Science

James Robertson has been posting recently about women in technology, which got me to thinking about it again.

One possibility is that it's discrimination, or that women are unwilling to enter a field that is dominated by men even if there isn't other discrimination. However, I don't believe that offers much of an explanation. While geekiness in general has a masculine feel to it, I believe this is descriptive, not prescriptive. Simply, the tendencies that make a person well suited to computer science are tendencies that are primarily found in men. The priorities, interests, skills, and inclination of women simply don't point in those same directions.

One could say that few women probably have those tendencies which would be best for accountancy either, and yet there are many women accountants -- I would counter that men aren't particularly inclined towards interest in that area either. You don't become an accountant because of a deep passion (at least, I don't think so... a passion for accountancy seems a little sad), you become one because you are sufficiently adept at the necessary skills, and because someone will pay you to do it.

The same could be true of computer science -- there are women who are sufficiently adept with the necessary skills, and someone will pay you to do it. When that is the only requirements, there tend to be more women. But when there are people who do have a passion, those people tend not to be women. There are subfields of IT where people do have a real passion, and there are much less women in those fields. I think programming is one such subfield of IT.

I don't want to make this post too long, so I'll end it here and continue another day.

Created 18 Apr '04
Modified 14 Dec '04


I suppose I come from pretty much a feminist position, but I suspect it has more to do with what the woman in question has felt as an acceptable and inviting passion throughout their life.

At a recent conference (Africa Source [my web log entries about it]), we had a lively discussion about gender issues in technology with not only a few real live girl geeks, but also someone whose real life work is dealing with gender issues in technology. Obviously, she's also coming from a feminist position, but her belief is that it has more to do with availability and (social/family) acceptability of opportunities to grow in the technical area.

The issue of role models was another issue which most people there accepted as a major inhibiting factor in the acceptance of something as a passion; you're less likely to invest time and energy into something when you can't see yourself as the end result, which is something which role models provide.

And finally, an inviting community and work place is necessary.

I brought this together with my experience of race/culture issues in technology in South Africa, where we're trying to build a base of technically-excelling individuals from the races which have not had that opportunity before. Self-acceptance, social acceptance, work environment, and role models seem to be the key areas when the opportunity does present itself.

This is less of an issue outside of Africa (I'm told) and similarly the gender issue is less pronounced in certain areas, such as the Scandinavian countries (or so I'm told).

The argument from the other side really seems to be that girls have less of an inherent predisposition to this sort of work, or they're not tough enough to survive in the sometimes hot-headed and sexist IT community or workplace.

The feminist response is that the former may or may not be valid, but it's unprovable while the latter is in place. Unless there's a safe and inviting environment for these girls to find themselves, you can't say they don't exist.
# Neil Blakey-Milner

A lot of IT office environments are very unhealthy places to work. Very competitive, emphasis on "stars" rather than well functioning teams, long hours culture, dysfunctional personality traits accepted and in many cases nurtured.

I don't think it's just women that can be put off working in IT, a lot of men are not willing to put up with it either.

Hopefully some more modern approaches like XP, which focus on communication, teams and sensible working practices (regular hours, limited overtime) will help encourage more people to consider IT as a career.
# Will Newton

Once upon a time (I can speak of the 1970s), computer programming was an unglamorous, low paying job. There were programming jobs at the time which just barely paid more than the US minimum legal wage. Many universities did not yet have computer science departments.

There were many more women computer programmers back then. My first was working for the local school department (while still in high school), 2 of the 5 programmers were women.

My second job was working for a then major software development firm doing hardcore realtime systems on minicomputers, 5 of the 8 programmers in our office were female. And, out of the several hundred programmers in the company, nearly half were women.

Women started disappearing from the field during the early 80s, at roughly the time programming became a well paying and popular career option. The new computer science departments were predominately populated by male professors and students, as was the emerging hacker culture that led to the development of the PC.
# Marc Ramsey