Gender and Technology

This post has been a long time coming, and I feel that being at DemoCamp on Monday night really emphasized how important the gender imbalance problem really is. I’ve resisted talking about this in the past because the majority of responses that I get are negative and assume that I’m overemphasizing the disparity, being a “feminazi” or just plain whining.

The fact is that there is a problem when 90% of the attendants of an incredible event like this are male, and it shouldn’t be ignored. I previously held the belief that things were slowly and surely getting better and it would only be a matter of time before the gender imbalance propagated its way through generations and soon enough the ratio of male to female executives in most fields would become more representative of the population. Throughout university, specifically in my sociology classes I learned that this is simply not the case, especially in mathematics an computer science. The National National Science Foundation reports that the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in mathematics and computer science was actually lower in 2001 than it was in 1964. This is not indicative of a trend that is improving.

The underlying problem starts with our deeply ingrained stereotypes about men and women. Have you ever met someone whose gender you were unable to determine and it distracted you to the point of not being able to pay attention to anything else? We all have at one point, and this simple example shows how important male and female stereotypes are in our judgment of people. If we are unable to determine someone’s gender, we are missing one of the key pieces by which we then continue to judge that person.

We are all well aware of the idea that men are simply better at math and computers then women. For those of you who were at DemoCamp 11, you would have seen a prime example of the stereotype in the AutoSSL presentation (side note: I’m not dogging this group, it was just a very obvious example) where they showed pictures of what “tech support” looks like – all pictures of males – and then a picture of a non-technical user, which was a cute older lady with the ends of two cables in her hands making a face like she had no clue what to do with them. I realize it was also a play on how technical knowledge decreases with age, and I did find it funny and cute and laughed out loud, but the blatant stereotype was also something I noticed.

In our world of political correctness we have stopped being able to express these types of opinions aloud, which ultimately compounds the problem because there is nothing explicit, out in the open that everyone can see and hear to understand where the problem lies. It wasn’t until I took a course in university that I even was able to identify the problems that exist. The only way to solve these issues are to expose them and to educate people about their own prejudices. In the meantime, we need to identify and mentor women to ensure that they are realizing their own potential and not being left out of technical fields because of stereotypes that are being subtly conveyed to them.

Phew. This is getting pretty long and I think I’ve conveyed the key points here, so I’ll put this issue to rest for a while. Hope it gets you thinking.

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13 Responses to “Gender and Technology”

  1. Jorge Aranda Says:

    Nice post, and a very appropriate concern considering the Democamp controversy of a couple of months ago.

    And you may also be interested in reading Catspaw’s rant on the same topic.

    Cheers!

  2. Rohan Jayasekera Says:

    As I wrote in my blog post “The Web 2.0 monoculture”, I think there are a lot of prejudices at work at DemoCamp-type events, with gender being only one of them. Monocultural problems tend to be self-reinforcing, but a couple of things can be done (without resorting to destructive quota-type approaches): (1) ensuring that the environment is welcoming to outsiders, and (2) actively encouraging outsiders to join in. As Jorge mentions, (1) got much discussion after an earlier DemoCamp. As for (2), are there other women who might be interested in coming to DemoCamps? Might Wired Woman’s Toronto chapter be worth approaching, for instance?

    Interestingly enough, it was a woman (my friend Carolyn Burke, Canada’s first blogger) who first told me about DemoCamp!

    DemoCamp is of course just one example of the imbalance, but at least it’s one we might be able to do something about.

    I should stop now, because “technical knowledge decreases with age” and at any moment I might forget how to type.

  3. Jenny Says:

    Hey Jorge, thanks for the links, I have to admit catspaw’s rant hit very close to home with me. There are only so many of those types of comments that you can stand before you write a raging post like that!

    Rohan, your blog post was wonderful. There are so many other types of discrimination that people need to be aware of when they are not experiencing it themselves.

    I took a look at the wired woman’s website and though it’s something that I would be very interested in getting involved in, however, the simple fact that they charge admission for their seminars puts me off the idea of the group. Don’t people participate in groups such as because they are passionate about it, or is that my naivety talking?

    I have to admit the “technical knowledge decreases with age” was badly worded. It was meant to imply a cohort effect, as my grandparents and their peers weren’t immersed in technology growing up, not that your very technical brain will shrivel up and refuse to function when you hit 60. There are some very tech-saavy grandmas out there.

  4. Rohan Jayasekera Says:

    I was just joking about the “technical knowledge decreases with age”. I would have put a smiley after it, but I didn’t want to discriminate against smiley-haters 🙂 (but I’ve had a mood swing now).

  5. David Crow Says:

    People participate because they are passionate.

    Sandy and Kate and others started this discussion at BarCampTdot. There has been controversy and discussion. But I haven’t heard any answers, or any new information that would help us.

    Participation is what matters. We need to facilitate a community. To raise the level of discussion in Toronto and the GTA about design, emerging technology, and entrepreneurship. To find others, to be inspired, to be social, to be better. The community is the framework. And if there is a bias, accepted community norms that are excluding or prevent others from joining we should find out what they are and how to change them. I just haven’t seen any new data, any new information or suggest how to change our culture.

    What can we do? What do we need to do?

  6. Jenny Says:

    There is no one, simple solution to this problem. It first comes with acknowledging the issue and examining your own prejudices that you may hold. We all have them, I have them myself, and I sometimes have to take a second to examine whether or not my initial analysis that another person doesn’t have a damn clue what they’re talking about has more to do with who they are than what they’re saying. Unfortunately, most women my age have already had it drilled into their head that they’re less competent than their male peers. We may need a little extra push. Promoting events like demoCamp to female students is a great idea, they’re maybe a little more optimistic, having not encountered the real working world and all its prejudices yet. Sometimes you even need to grab their hand and drag them along. That’s what I needed and I’m so glad that I came!

  7. brycej Says:

    I want to thank you for talking about the problem of gender imbalance at DemoCamp. I don’t know if our BarCamps are as gender biased and I’m fairly certain that Eli’s CaseCamp and UsabilityCamp don’t have this issue.

    As David commented on your post BarCamp is about attendee participation we have not excluded anyone but we have used this ideal as a form of crowd control. If someone is not comfortable being an active participant and they don’t want to come then that was fine.

    It is time for that idea to change. You and others have said that we need to encourage diversity through outreach and community facilitation and I will do my part to make that happen. I ask you to please participate in this community even more then you have already by helping us make this happen.

    I hope that you continue to come out to DemoCamp and I commented on Slava’s blog I would really like us to discuss solutions at a DemoCamp event. We will make the time either before or after the event or when someone’s demo is very terrible, then we can boot them and talk about this instead.
    Thanks Jenny

  8. Mark Kuznicki Says:

    Jennifer, thanks for speaking out. I think David hits it on the head, there’s a problem but we don’t know its source or how to fix it. I just blogged a longish theory on the possible sources of gender bias in DemoCamp. Short excerpt:

    The DemoCamp format itself is a cultural form based on a particular geek culture that is highly gender-biased. That culture finds its source in a certain nerd-boy bedroom aesthetic and value-system that is deeply embedded throughout the technology industry. The DemoCamp format is about the gears that whir under the hood: it is Meccano, polished alloy wheels or a kick-ass subwoofer.

  9. Dave Forde Says:

    Maybe I’m just different, but I don’t get it?! The platform is there, whether it be DemoCamp or any other event. Sure there aren’t many women in the room, but nothing is stopping them from attending or even presenting at them. So now that the problem has been identified, I ask the following “Where is the next generation of female leaders” ready to take on the challenge and help to make a difference?

    While Digital Eve folded, groups such as Wired Women are still around somewhere – is it not enough???

  10. Mark Kuznicki Says:

    Dave, you have to recognize that many women don’t feel comfortable with the format and college-dorm feeling of the DemoCamp scene. It’s not for guys to get it or not get it, it just exists.

    By the way, how was your gender-war/networking event Mars vs. Venus? Did you have a lot of women participating? Or was there something about the format that spooked them?

  11. Michael Glenn Says:

    Jennifer, I posted my thoughts on the gender issue. Perhaps we need to expand the focus of technology demos beyond the “gadget” appeal.

  12. Dave Forde Says:

    Mark – Isn’t the promise of the format to be “unconference”, to be what the users create, to be open? If that is truely the promise and truely the case then why hasn’t it been shifted to fit the audience and the audience to control the format?
    Of course women participated, that was the whole point of holding the event, to create a fun environment where both sexes could answer a series of skill testing questions and either side had just as much chance to walk away a winner. No different then the networking event where I brought Salsa dancers – pure fun, great networking and most importantly everyone was treated with respect!

  13. Mark Kuznicki Says:

    That’s a great idea, fewer demos, more salsa dancing! SalsaCamp? DemoCamp meets So You Think You Can Dance, now that will loosen people up!

    But it begs a question: will getting the basement geeks hooked up reduce their coding output?

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