Waving the feminist flag again

Knowing how it upsets quite a few of my male readers I just can’t help myself. It’s Ada Lovelace day today, so we’re celebrating women who have excelled in technology.

I’ve chosen not to celebrate any woman in particular but instead to muse over why so many women still shy away from technology.

Ada Lovelace embraced technology although it hadn’t even been invented when she was around. She was guided by her curiosity combined with a brilliant brain and the financial circumstances to allow it.

I think that there’s a number of reasons why women don’t tend to embrace technology the way men do.

*disclaimer*
Please note that I use GENERALISATIONS in this post. I KNOW that not all men embrace technology or are good at it, I KNOW that there are women who excel in hardcore programming, etc. etc. But I’m sure you’ll agree that MORE women than men shy away from technology and that MORE men than women enjoy discussing Megabits of this and Gigabytes of that.
*end of disclaimer*

One of these reasons is the rather dull and unsurprising that technology has always been a male thing ever since the invention of the first technologies when women were still mostly “housewives” and dumbed down by themselves, their mothers, their fathers, their teachers, their brothers, their husbands and society in general. When computers started to be household items, everything to do with them was communicated in a special language, almost exclusive to people who worked with computers and completely unintelligible to anybody outside. But most men had to either pretend to understand or buy some copies of PC World and get an understanding quickly if they didn’t want to be out of the loop.

For women it was enough to learn the weird code language that was WordPerfect. Learning that was not at all considered a computer skill and nobody ever told any secretary that she could take her advanced WordPerfect coding skills and transfer them to other forms of computer coding – that the principles were the same even if the codes were different. So a large group of people – women – who could have become programmers and learned HTML as easy as one-two-three was completely lost. Because when Apple came with their What You See Is What You Get word processing technology and Microsoft came right at their heels and delivered Word to the world, everybody forgot all about WordPerfect and the skillset required to work it.

The language surrounding computers and other daily life technologies has certainly become a lot more accessible with the acceptance and knowledge that the target group has exploded and now includes everybody. But techno speak is still rife and you do need to learn some basics if you want to purchase some new technology and actually know what you’re buying. It’s also very helpful to know basic computer lingo when you make the inevitable call to the dreaded call centre for help. But I still think it would be really helpful if the ad said: This phone has 8GB memory. That equals x number of songs or x podcasts or x movie length films. I mean, who cares whether it’s 8 or 16GB? What you care about is whether there’s room for your entire Itunes library.

So when I talk to other women about technology and they get defensive about learning a bit of computer lingo I challenge them. Every time we enter a new chapter of our lives, we learn the language belonging to this particular subgroup without giving it much thought. You start studying law and after a year or so you’ve adopted a whole new set of words which you use effortlessly, inside and outside university. When you start cooking you learn the difference between tsp and tbsp and after the first mistake you know what “separate the eggs” means. When you first get pregnant (or your girl does) you learn a whole new set of words and phrases and suddenly know exactly what is considered a “normal” birth weight and what isn’t whereas previously you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if somebody had told you that their baby weighed 12 kilos at birth.

I therefore challenge women to sit down and learn the basics about computers, so they can understand enough to make sane purchases, avoid viruses, guide their children and do what they want to do on their computers and smartphones. Whining that it’s “too complicated” just doesn’t cut any slack with me.

And now for the second reason why I think women are lagging behind when it comes to technology. I think they lack curiosity. Or rather, they lack the inclination to pursue their curiosity. And I think that’s with us from childhood. The further we go back in time the less women are likely to have been encouraged to act on their curiosity as children. And if you go to a toy store or a book store’s children’s department you’ll see how that’s still so very much the case. I should underline that this is a lot worse here in the UK than it is in Denmark. Can’t speak for the rest of the world. The wonderful Science Museum here in the UK has developed the most amazing series of exploratory toys and, happily, they’re on sale all over the world. However, in many a toy store or department store these toys are displayed in the boys’ section and not in the girls’. And where, unfortunately, it’s a general trend that children’s toys today don’t encourage them to think “out of the box” (Now, who is responsible for ruining that phrase? come here and I’ll spank you!) as much as previous generations’ toys, it’s much more true for girls’ toys. If you don’t believe me, go take a look. And don’t tell me that I can just avoid them. I only have boys. But then, I’m not talking about me. Keeping in mind the size of the toy departments and the amount of money spent on advertising toys every year, there CLEARLY are people who buy it, right!

I blame the mothers, particularly the ones who ought to know better, for giving in to this. Just heard this morning that some girls at son’s school were invited to a birthday party with a “Makeover” theme. That makes me want to be sick in somebody’s designer handbag.

In the teetering stack of books next to my bed is a book called Curious? by the psychologist Todd Kashdan (@toddkashdan on Twitter). I haven’t read it yet, but I bought it based on his op-eds in The Huffington Post and an article in the Guardian. I’m very curious myself and have often been told that I’m too curious for my own good. Imagine how pleased I was to read that curiosity is actually good for you and leads to much more “life satisfaction” if such a thing can be quantified. The curious are seldom bored, there’s always an avenue to explore. So what I know now, in the midst of the huge sea of things I don’t know, is that at least I’m not going to die of boredom.

***

So, what I meant to say on Ada Lovelace day, was this: Yes, ladies, there’s a historic precedence for women to not be curious and to be cr*p at technology. But that’s all it is. There are no excuses anymore. And if you can’t be bothered for yourself, then do it for your children. They deserve that you make the effort to understand the world they live in.

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Women in tech

Today is Ada Lovelace day. Ada what-day? I hear you say. Well, Ada Lovelace was a pioneer in the technology field, where not many women have been pioneering. Click her name and read all about it. And here you can read how her legacy has been meaningful to her descendants for generations. And here about the idea behind Ada Lovelace day. Today’s Guardian has an article as well.

That it’s Ada Lovelace day means that all women who are interested in tech-stuff and also other women who take an interest in feminism celebrate a brave woman who came before us and had a lot less opportunities than we have. I’ve signed a pledge to write a blogpost about a living woman who’s made her mark in the tech community. At first I had no idea who to write about, but then I heard about Manuela Veloso. I listen to podcasts of a Danish tech programme called Harddisken and they had met her and interviewed her. I took an instant liking to this little busy, busy middle-aged Latin woman, who has made a career for herself in robotics. It’s not rocket science, but it’s d… close!

Here’s her long term research goal as expressed by herself (autonomous agent=robot):

My long-term research goal is the effective construction of autonomous agents where cognition, perception, and action are combined to address planning, execution, and learning tasks. My vision is that multiple intelligent robots with different sets of complementary capabilities will provide a seamless synergy of intelligence. Concretely, my research focuses on the continuous integration of reactive, deliberative planning, and control learning for teams of multiple agents acting in adversarial, dynamic, and uncertain environments. Of particular interest to me is learning, adversarial modeling, reuse, and abstraction in multiagent problems.

Manuela Veloso. Picture from Carnegie-Mellon homepage.
Manuela Veloso. Picture from Carnegie-Mellon homepage.

She’s Portuguese, but works as a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburg. Details about her personal life – like her date of birth – are scarce, but from her picture and career I think it’s safe to say that she’s around 50. Why she left Portugal is anybody’s guess, but it was probably a career-move, judging from her CV.

Because her main interest is the so-called “flocking” (=computers copying the behaviour of birds or fish when travelling together in big flocks or shoals), she has taken a particular interest in robot soccer games. Read about that here. If you just for a moment start thinking about what it entails to embed flocking behaviour into robots, so that they might behave like a flock of starlings is completely mind boggling!

So there, that was my two pence for women in tech.

Oh, and I think that if you’ve made it this far, you could also click here to aid the Breast Cancer Foundation.

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