Why are there so few women in the world of computing? Why do men predominate on-line and stay up all night, tinkering with their config.sys files? And does it make any difference?
In search of answers, the Los Angeles Times asked some people who've spent time thinking about such questions. Here are some excerpts from the resulting discussion, which began with Jo Sanders.
Jo Sanders: I am increasingly concerned by the direction the popular media is taking about women's issues, including computing. We seem to be hearing more and more about the equivalent of a "computer gene" that makes women different, in essence innately, from men.
This thinking leads to the conclusion that it's not surprising there are so few women in computing, relatively speaking, and not coincidentally, also reinforces the status quo: if women are by nature unsuited to computing, why bother trying to increase their numbers? In all my years of research on girls and computing, it seems to me that there are so many cultural influences that explain the differences in computer behavior and achievement between men and women that looking for the functional equivalent of a computer gene is at best misguided and at worst a cynical attempt to keep women out of computing.
We know a great deal about the subtle and not-so-subtle influences: parents who buy computers for boys and put them in boys' rooms, software that appeals (not to say panders!) to male tastes, pornography in electronic networks and software, nerdy boys who chase girls out of computer rooms--I could go on and on.
George Gilder: The dominance of males in computing is no greater than their dominance in mathematics, logic, business, politics, physics, chess, athletics and violent crime. These areas of dominance are obviously not an effect of socialization since they arise in all societies known to anthropology.
Although it is not politically correct, male dominance originates with the biological differences between the sexes, beginning with the perceptible differentiation of brain structures. As long as computing is a leading-edge activity, it will be dominated by males. This was true of driving until the car was routinized. When the computer becomes a routine tool, men will turn to something more challenging.
Robin Raskin: Surely this was meant as inciteful conversation?
I think the operative word here is not "leading edge" but "impractical." That is as long as computing is an "impractical" activity, it will be dominated by males. Women are practical creatures, driven by very practical, goal-oriented needs. While men have the luxury of "frittering away" their time with on-line banter, the latest video game technology, a round of sports, a few hours of listening to high fidelity or some other "sharper image" pursuit, women have been juggling the realities of family and work.
I'm a woman who spent 10 years at home minding the children, and writing about technology as a sideline. When my children were school-aged, I returned to the office and was shocked beyond belief at how inefficiently men there used their time relative to women at home. I also quickly came to realize and appreciate that sometimes it's this playful/tinkering/explorative behavior that leads to the most creative work.
As a woman in this industry, I try to balance the practical considerations of getting a high-tech magazine out on time and on budget with the more noble pursuit of "testing the heck out of a software or hardware product." In other words, I try to bring a sort of androgynous blend to the picture. Women have as little incentive to go on-line and chat with electronic cronies as they did to hang out at the corner bar. As the computer becomes a tool with a means to an end--a way to get the school newsletter out, or shop for a family, or find out what an expert family doctor says about the new HIV vaccination, or plan a family trip, or balance the family budget--that's when women will see the value of computing. Women see a "tool" where men see a "toy."
Sanders: I'm always amused at the certainty people have of innate sex differences, considering that such a thing is unknowable. When we're prepared to raise children in individual boxes with no environmental influences whatever, then we will know what is innate and what isn't. In the meantime we have to assume that since we know a fair amount about environmental influences that shape expectations and behavior, at least a lot can be laid at that doorstep.
Reva Basch: Whatever the historical reasons for the lack of women in computing--something that I do think is changing--I see a tremendous interest among my female friends and colleagues, not so much in how computers work as in what they can "do."