Category Archives: women

The Enchantress of Numbers; Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is the first Ada Lovelace Day, dedicated to the celebration of women in technology. =)

It’s interesting to think about the history of gender and computers. Ada Lovelace‘s work in writing algorithms and imagining the many applications of computers beyond simply crunching numbers. When computers first came into the workplace, computing was seen as a pink-collar job because it resembled the secretarial work that women did. Then the tide changed, and things progressed to the point where countless research papers were written about the gender imbalance in computer science and related fields. What was it about computing that was driving women away?

Now, perhaps, it’s shifting closer to balance, and that makes me happy.

I remember growing up on the networks, and then the Internet. My ambiguously-gendered name and my technical skill led a number of people to assume I was male, to the great amusement of people who knew otherwise. Upon people’s discovery that I was actually female, I’d often get hit on. At technical conferences, there were never lines for the women’s bathroom, sometimes I was the only female in the session, and female speakers were rare. Being female in a male-dominated field had its perks: on overseas programming competitions, I usually got a room to myself.

And yes, there was that niggling feeling of doubt that people found my early achievements disproportionately notable because of my gender, because I knew many brilliant people who didn’t get the opportunities I stumbled across. The imposter syndrome has many different shades.

To this day, I still get personal e-mail addressed “Dear Sir:” (and I’m not talking about the 419 scams, but people applying for positions or asking me for help). I still have people surprised to hear my (obviously female) voice when we talk on the phone. I still find myself reflexively checking the proportion of attendees and speakers at the conferences I go to.

I learned never to make gender assumptions in my speech and in my writing, and to enjoy turning other people’s assumptions upside down. (That’s one of the reasons I have a picture on my website.) I still come across technical documentation written exclusively with male pronouns, and it’s difficult to stifle the urge to rewrite it using plurals or alternating examples.

It’s a lot better than it used to be, though. I don’t have to worry as much about people hitting on me or misinterpreting what I say, although I don’t know whether that’s because the culture is changing, because I’ve developed ways to head things off before they get to that point, or because I tend to hang out with older people who are already in good relationships.

I’ve been very lucky. My parents made sure that we never thought of computers or other things as a “guy thing”. Growing up with two sisters who were both out there and doing cool things helped, too. I had plenty of role models, and I still do.

Not everyone has that kind of environment. No matter what gender you are, keep an eye out for people who might be excluded from your field of work. Sometimes it’s a little thing like lack of confidence leading to a wider and wider digital divide. Sometimes it’s a big thing, like an environment where picking on people is acceptable (and it shouldn’t be). We can be better people than that. =)

Women

Clair Ching sent me a link to
Joss Whedon’s post about the honour killing of a young woman. As sickened as I am to hear that
such things happen and that the proliferation of mobile phones and
video sharing services has given rise to amateur pornography of
violence, I do not feel despair. I can’t feel despair. To give into
despair is to give up, to let myself be paralyzed by fear. Nor can I
see the problem as female. This kind of discrimination is abominable
in any form, whether it be against the homosexual or the homeless or
the housewife.

But what can I do?

I can be strong and live my life as if the world I want is already
here, and to either laugh at or fight or shame those who act
otherwise.

E-Mail from Clair Ching

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OMG. Girls have the geek gene, too?! NO WAY!

Girls have the geek gene, too, reports Jen Gerson of The Toronto Star. Read it and weep.
Goodness gracious, someone *please* tell me that this is a satire
article appearing in The Onion, not a serious article appearing in the
I.D. section of a major newspaper.

The opening sentence starts the same way as most articles about women
in technology, making us feel like an endangered species. (Crikey!)
But then it gets worse, and worse, and worse. I feel like printing and
framing it.

I.D. chatted with one of the key speakers, Dr. Telle Whitney,
president of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, about
why young women are frightened by the prospect of joining a field
dominated by intelligent men who have no idea how to please them.

The things I could say about this…

So, women and technology. Why do they need their own symposium?

Because we’re afraid of cooties. Snark snark snark.

Do you think fewer women are getting involved in technology because they’re
not as interested in it, or are they just not smart enough?

Could you possibly have a more provoking question if you tried?

But tech companies, they paint their electronics pink. Shouldn’t that draw
women in?

Apparently you *can* have a more provoking question.

So pink is not the way to go, for attracting women?

I like frilly interfaces and flowers myself. NOT.

Should we bring more women in? Aren’t there few enough jobs in technology
that we need to bring women too, into it?

Completely missing the point!

But how is it that women can juggle making computers with making babies?

ARRRRGGGGGHHHH!!

But are the babies disruptive to the computers? How do you trust babies
around all that sensitive equipment?

More than I’d trust a certain reporter, apparently.

The following segment is just… horrible.

  • Q Is Anita Borg a real name?
  • A Anita Borg was the founder of the Institute.
  • Q Was that before Star Trek: The Next Generation, or after?
  • A It was really her name.
  • Q Bad luck.
  • A She passed away a few years ago from brain cancer. She was a very dear friend of mine and I took over here a few years ago.
  • Q Oh. I’m a terrible human being. Is that what you’re saying?
  • A No no, she used to have these big pictures of Borg all over her house. She was a Star Trek fan.

There are no words to explain how terrible the article is. It is
downright irresponsible of the Toronto Star to publish something this
insensitive and disrespectful, considering the pressures that are
already on women in technology.

Should we cut Jen some slack just because she’s a fourth-year Ryerson
University journalism student, or the Toronto Star for giving its
columnists free rein? At what point are journalism students supposed
to gain common sense? Jen asked those questions, typed up the
interview, and the Toronto Star published it. At what point was
someone supposed to go, “Wait a minute, what is this article saying?”

ARGH! Read, blog, link, whatever: clueless journalist. Her e-mail address is [email protected] . Help her learn not to do that again.

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Social Tech Brewing: Kristin ?

Kristin talked about how, if you were stuck on something, there was
often the assumption that it was because you were a woman instead of
there actually being a problem. She shared her experience of taking
courses and being afraid of asking “silly” questions until she
eventually did, finding out that her male classmates had also been
wondering the same thing. Self-confidence plays such a huge role…

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Social Tech Brewing: Sticky stickers

Amber MacArthur took a break during the Social Tech Brewing panel
to call attention to the sticker on my laptop and the pin on my
backpack. The sticker on my laptop reads, “The geek shall inherit the
earth.” I got it from the Software Freedom Day leftovers from the
Philippines. The pin reads, “No, you can’t just explain it in the
manual.” I snagged that from Human Factors International at CHI 2006.

I love wearing quirky little things like that. It gives people a
whatzit and invites them to talk to me. I’ve had random conversations
with people because of the Tux penguin pin, for example.

Stuff like that helps me establish myself as a geek girl instead of
just someone’s significant other at tech events. I *really* should
make a sticker that reads: “Emacs: More than just a text editor. It’s
a way of life!” Or “(I (think (in (LISP))))”

Hmm. There’s a book about writing for bumper stickers. I should
request it. Fortunately I don’t have the budget or space for an inkjet
printer, so I’m forced to find other ways to make these little jokes
happen…

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Social Tech Brewing: Leesa Barnes

Leesa Barnes asked us to reflect on the day(s) that we almost quit
technology. She shared her experience in 2004 at the last full-time
job she ever had. “Never again,” she said.

She quit because her job had challenged her integrity. “For five years
I worked at a technology company, working on a piece of software that
was crap. And we all knew it. And we worked with our clients, with
this piece of software, everyone fully knowing that it was a piece of
crap. Yet we still had to implement it, put on a brave face, and once
it went live… disappear.”

Oftentimes, our work challenges our integrity. That’s one of the
barriers we face as women in technology. Not just crude jokes and
administrative tasks, and everyday situations where our integrity is
challenged. That’s why Leesa considered quitting technology altogether.

Leesa also called attention to how horrible a job women do supporting
each other. Five women in a team of 200, and they didn’t even feel
comfortable having lunch with each other for fear that their managers
would misconstrue it.

She fell in love with technology again when she discovered podcasting,
and has been passionate about it ever since. She’s chosen not to focus
on the negative stuff that she encounters in the industry, and instead
has chosen to surround herself with positive experiences and
individuals. That’s her strategy, and it’s worked really well so far.

Leesa ended her speech with a call to support each other and to look
at solutions instead of just focusing on problems. And she’s right: a
positive outlook breeds positive outcomes!

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