Women in Computing – the debate continues

// 22 June 2007

Gender Difference in Computing Prompted by this blog post by Tim Bray, Jeni Tennison has some interesting ideas about how we should encourage women into computer related industries. It’s worth quoting at length…

First, we can shift the perception of the proportion of women in computing. We can talk up the proportion of women in computing by including the non-programming aspects of development, such as project management, training, technical writing and user interface design, where I bet (but don’t have statistics to back it up) the proportion is higher. We can boost the profiles of the women who are in computing simply by taking small steps like reading and referencing their blogs. We can make it easier for women to attend conferences by providing or subsidising childcare (heh). We can use the pronoun ‘she’ on occasion when talking about programmers.

Second, we can emphasise the female-friendly aspects of computing. For example, the nature of development means that flexible working practices are much easier to adopt than in some other professions. It’s easy for people in computing to work at home, perfectly possible to work part time and to work on small projects and so on. Also, the speed at which technology moves means that taking time out for children doesn’t necessarily put you at a disadvantage: everyone has to re-train constantly anyway!

Another tack might be to shift the focus onto those aspects of computing that women feel better at, such as communication and teamwork. In other words, make computing about more than hammering away on your own to create the fastest, most succinct code the world has ever seen. Stress working with clients, producing documented and understandable code and sharing knowledge with others. (In fact, several of the practices of Extreme Programming emphasise precisely these aspects of development.)

Third, we can try to reduce the impediments women feel entering a ‘male’ discipline. There are two factors that I can think of here: low self-efficacy and feeling the odd one out… This is also an issue for trainers: we need to be able to boost the self-efficacy of the people we train (particularly women) by setting them challenging (but achievable) tasks and not giving them too much help to achieve them.

Finally, we can reduce the feeling of being the odd one out. There’s obviously the option of helping women network with each other, but speaking personally, I don’t feel the odd one out when I’m the only woman in the room: I feel the odd one out when I’m not treated like the other men, namely as an individual with a large set of geeky interests that very probably overlap with yours.”

From Jeni’s Musings

Of course the one thing she doesn’t mention, which I know about from word of mouth, is that the industry also needs to tackle the casual sexism and homophobia bandied about working environments. That too would be a step forward.

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