Archive for February 17, 2010

Did PCs influence decline in female participation in computing?

Lucy Sanders, CEO of NCWIT, visited Georgia Tech yesterday as the Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology’s 2010 Distinguished Lecturer. Her talk was full of some pretty depressing statistics about the declining participation of women in computing.  After the talk, she moderated a more-lively-than-usual discussion that started with a question “Why?  Why did women’s participation in computing start declining at the end of the 1980’s?”

Lucy was honest. “I don’t know.”  She said that she had heard lots of theories, but welcomed suggestions from the audience.  Lucy said that her personal opinion was that the dot-com boom didn’t help women.  The geeky, work 24/7, take-all-risks image of the male technology entrepreneur helped to make the perception of computing as more male.  She also pointed out that history has shown that when wages rise in a field, men fill it and women leave it.

Barb Ericson had a suggestion that I don’t recall hearing before which made a lot of sense to me.  When she was a software engineer at Bellcore, she programmed mainframes in large terminal rooms. Few people had terminals at their desks.  Those terminal rooms were social spaces where women made up 30% of the workforce.

Then the PC became mainstream. People had PC’s on their desk and could work alone, without going to a terminal room.   Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher talked in “Unlocking the Clubhouse” how the PC came into the home through the fathers and was seen mostly as a male device.  If there was one in the family, it would most often be in the son’s room.  Video games were created for the PC by guys for guys.  As the PC displaced the mainframe, the males displaced the females.

It’s an interesting theory, as were several others that were suggested yesterday.  Knowing the cause in decline in participation doesn’t necessarily mean that we immediately know a solution.  We can’t get rid of PC’s, we don’t want to lower wages, and we can’t make the dot-com era not happen (short of a time machine).  It’s still useful, though, to figure out what caused the decline to give us clues as to the way forward.

February 17, 2010 at 8:35 am 5 comments

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