Women in computing

by Eszter Hargittai on October 10, 2004


As I scanned the hallway for signs of the party, an arch of red, yellow, green and blue balloons extended a welcome. I entered the grand ballroom where fun sounds of karaoke and a sea of neon green glassware greeted me. To the left was a large screen with random words scrolling quickly: Elmers glue effect on skin; [Hebrew characters]; [Chinese characters]; pokemon cards. Scattered across the room were people forming small lines for massages, caricature drawings and tarot card readings. Ninety-five percent of those present were women. It reminded me of my college years – having attended a women’s college – and what a blast you could have putting a group of women in a room with great music. This is probably a cliché, but you really could feel the excitement and energy especially when people – whether in their 20s or 40s – crowded the dance floor for the Macarena and the electric slide. I couldn’t help but think that the songs for karaoke were not randomly selected as I listened to people sing the words to “I’m a Barbie girl” and “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover”.

Welcome to the party hosted by Women of Google at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Chicago. The meetings were sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Association of Computing Machinery. Anyone doubting whether there are still social barriers for women in computing fields needs only talk to the attendees. The young women – undergraduates or just a few years out of college pursuing graduate degrees in computer science and related fields – cannot contain their excitement of and appreciation for what this meeting offers them. Unlike the vastly male-dominated conferences and classrooms that make up most of their professional experiences and that are still often hostile to women, the Grace Hopper Celebration affords them a chance to see and meet extremely successful women in their fields – corporate VPs, university deans, inventors, inspiring mentors – who are supportive of their pursuits.

I never met Anita Borg, but listening to people makes her contributions to women in technological fields obvious. As one of the hosts put it: he had never felt her presence as much as in that ballroom.

Although I am not a computer scientist, my interests are closely related to many of the issues relevant here (e.g. I study technology use where questions about gender come up quite often). I owe much of my training with technology and invaluable initial mentoring about academia to one of my college professors, Joseph O’Rourke of the Computer Science Department at Smith College. Joe’s contributions reach well past his own students. He was instrumental in the early 90s in setting up a mentoring program that matches female college computer science majors with female faculty at other schools for summer projects. I worked with Joe one summer tabulating information about the applicants. You could tell it was a popular program. Since then the project has grown manifold to fund these important experiences of even more young women. My colleague Justine Cassell hosted two students this summer on this program. One of them was able to make it back to the celebrations this weekend and talking to her at the party made the value of this experience extremely clear.

The party hosted by Google was both fun and inspiring. It is great to see important companies so supportive of women in technological fields. Among the gifts given to guests was a copy of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. I suspect many present will have already read it, but it is always good to have an extra copy on hand to give away. It is important to help people understand that there is nothing inherent in computing as a male field. It is the myriad of social interactions that people face from a very young age that lead girls and boys down different paths. In the end this can cost us a lot as it may channel very talented women out of fields in which their contributions may well be very significant.

{ 8 comments }

1

Cranky Observer 10.10.04 at 9:41 pm

The weird thing about the glass ceiling for women in computing is that if you look back at the 1940s and 1950s 50-60% of the pioneers were women. This was probably a result of the women mathematicians in World War II being pushed off to the “less important” areas such as computation while the men handled the “big jobs”, but it is true and remained so until the mid-1970s.

But at that point (1972 or so) the original women retired from the field and were not replaced by other women, leaving the situation we have today.

Cranky

2

clew 10.11.04 at 7:55 am

An earlier analogy is telegraphers; women made a surprising number of the first telegraphers. Some ran the line into their dainty parlor, some rode the rails to work in tiny stations in the Wild West. Romance! Movies! Labor fights over deskilling!

From, e.g., My Sisters Telegraphic, Jepsen; gently referred to in Pratchett’s Going Postal.

3

dave heasman 10.11.04 at 10:05 am

I work at the “dull” end of computing. Application development & support. I’ve been doing it for 34 years. I don’t have a computer sciece degree (there was only Manchester offering it when I graduated) and it’s not really necessary for what I do. The proportion of women in this area in my experience – and I’ve worked at over 70 sites in the UK – peaked about 1972, dropped until 1998 or so and then rose slightly. A lot of “computing” these days ia Excel work, which I don’t see. I think there are more women there. But not by much.

4

VJ 10.11.04 at 10:21 am

That’s Admiral Grace Hopper to you nimrods!

5

Maynard Handley 10.11.04 at 9:33 pm


It reminded me of my college years – having attended a women’s college – and what a blast you could have putting a group of women in a room with great music.

Aah — so the reason the women team on _The Apprentice_ is constantly infighting is the lack of great music :-)

6

Christina Brando 10.11.04 at 9:48 pm

What’s really disturbing about women in computing is what appears to be the downward trend:
“Although more undergraduates in general are getting degrees in computer science, the percentage of women leaving school with that specialty dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001.
(More here)

Anybody got an explanation?

7

Cranky Observer 10.12.04 at 2:49 pm

> What’s really disturbing about
> women in computing is what appears
> to be the downward trend:

Robert Morgan at Washington University in St. Louis was doing extensive research on that topic for the NSF in the early 1990s. I don’t know if he ever got anything published though. If interested you might want to follow up.

Cranky

8

Empowered Bitch 10.12.04 at 4:41 pm

“I couldn’t help but think that the songs for karaoke were not randomly selected as I listened to people sing the words to “I’m a Barbie girl” and “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover”.”

Did you know that the DJ (male) initially nixed the Bitch song? A protest to the Google staff quickly got that fixed :)

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