Rocket science or social science? Involving women in the creation of computing

Female scientists and social scientists from eleven countries, and representing many of the key professional bodies in computing in the world, came together in June 2004 at the Oxford Internet Institute to review the position of women internationally in the computing professions in an all-day forum entitled “Women in Computing Professions: Will the Internet Make a Difference?”. Countries represented were Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey, the UK and the USA. No one was able to tell a story of burgeoning uptake among women in their country of work; in fact the stories were mostly of falling percentages of female participation.

Nonetheless, the meeting came to see itself as part of a new wave of initiatives aimed at tackling this lack of representation by joining up schemes and connecting individuals. And the work that forum participants shared during the day was indicative of how much is being undertaken at different levels in society to resist the current trends.

The main argument of the day hinged on whether the issue was one that could be solved by generating new solutions (rocket science), or whether solutions were known, but a lack of will had resulted in poor implementation. Could working through existing solutions with the combined weight of professional bodies worldwide address the issue meaningfully? Maria Klawe, president of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), and Dean of Engineering at Princeton University, argued that the knowledge exists about what to do but that it would take time and money to do it.

Wendy Hall, president of the BCS (British Computer Society) during 2004 and Professor at the University of Southampton, was more impatient: ‘I’ve tried all these things. How much money and how long will it take to really make a difference?’ she asked.

In fact, as Teresa Rees, professor of Sociology at Cardiff pointed out, social science research suggests that implementing equal opportunities is ‘rocket science’ in the sense that it is a complex and multi-faceted issue, involving multiple layers of society and many interacting policies and practices. It is far from tractable to one-off solutions. The unspoken question of the day was, then, how much worse might the situation be without the work that has been conducted and is continuing to support those women who do want to train and practice in computing.

Participants discussed whether it is important to have a gender balance throughout the whole IT development process or just overall within the industry. What emerged implicitly was a desire for women to have more influence in the industry, more control over the kind of technology produced and an easier passage as practitioners and researchers in the domain.

As part of achieving this, the group set out to address, first, the impact of the Internet and, second, the role of professional associations. This exploration of the impact of a technology drew attention to the impact of technological changes in general, and then to the issue of whether any technological change alone is going to make a difference.

Looking back to the take-up of personal computers, Wendy Hall demonstrated that the marketing and introduction of PCs to schools in the 1980s had a major impact on the gender divide, but a negative one. Looking ahead, she advocated putting in effort now to prepare the way for a more balanced contribution to what is expected to be the ‘new’ computing: large interconnected systems with a myriad of smaller components, which behave more intelligently as a whole; an increase in courses that incorporate computing and another science, such as the one planned at her own institution involving biology and the study of complex systems. This, she felt would be more attractive to women than the current focus is proving to be. She suggested:

Let us focus our efforts on the ten year horizon rather than the computing industry as it is today.

Let us ask what skills the computing profession will require then.

Let us make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of previous generations.

However, her optimism about the potential to use new technologies to change the status quo did not go unchallenged. Analysis of the social effect of the Internet showed there has undoubtedly been a significant impact on the gender balance with the rise of networked computing. For instance, the Internet has eliminated gender differences in access to domestic information technology in the United States. US census data for 1989, 1993, and 1997 (Anderson, Bikson, Law and Mitchell 1995; Bikson and Panis 1999) shows that during the period represented, the gender gap in access to a home computer disappeared entirely. And, by 1997, the gender gap in use of email and network services had narrowed to one percentage point. The Economist (May 15–21 2004) reports that, in the United States, women now outnumber men online. And one can attribute the increased uptake of computers and network services among women in the 1990s to the Internet, because of the motivating role of communication, which is widely cited as the leading influence on IT use.

However, while it would be reasonable to think that increasing access to, and use of, information technologies, over time might lead to increasing numbers of women in the computing professions and a decreased gender gap, this has not been the case. Through the 1990s the figures for women in computer science (CS) and computer engineering (CE) stayed static at approximately 19% average in the States, and has since been worsening this decade. Hidden in these figures is a rise in international women studying computer science and computer engineering. What foreign students may see as a passport to a good job, underscores poor performance at recruiting and retaining US women.

These figures are typical, or better, than those for many other industrialised countries. Thus, it seems that women, while well represented among consumers of IT products and services are significantly under-represented among those who contribute to their invention and development. And new technologies alone will not change the employment picture.

If the situation is as complex as this, what may the professional organisations do to improve upon it? Clearly, their involvement must be part of wider movements in society, but as a major influence on the initial training and subsequent development of people in the industry, they are gatekeepers to good practice.

Professional bodies (both ‘official’ and less formal interest groupings) are important in defining an industry’s practices and creating a sense of identity. Such value systems and sense of identity are not primarily conveyed through formal instructions. They are rather learned as one becomes increasingly a member of a ‘community of practice’ (Wenger 1998). This perhaps raises the possibility of a different way of improving the context for women in computing from either the individual mentor or the top-down, management-led equality policy. Communities of practice might be seen as unlikely change agents since their primary role is to sustain an existing identity and set of practices. However, such continuity is challenged both by changes in the body of knowledge which constitutes the profession’s domain and by members who are simultaneously members of other communities of practice, or bring with them differing perspectives based on their social group membership. In this respect, the professional associations represented at the forum might be seen as very well placed to consider and effect change.
Publication date: 
Friday, June 17, 2005
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