Last night, I attended a fabulous talk by Annalee Newitz, contributing editor of Wired, on the topic of "Revenge of the Female Nerds: Busting media and industry myths about why women can't be technical." The lecture took place at Harvard Law School, and what follows is my liveblogging of that lecture.
The room was probably 60-70% women, by the way - which goes along with her main idea that this is a gender issue, and that men and women need to work together on solving it.
She began with a couple of anecdotes. She attended Defcon, a major Hacker convention in Las Vegas. "Every time I was introduced, I was asked whose girlfriend are you? A woman at a conference like this wouldn't be interested in the subject matter... Both men and women asked." She also described a session where a male presenter said, "There are no women hackers." Despite the fact that many were in the room. The speaker continued to describe his unsuccessful attempt to identify women hackers, and therefore he asserted there were none. As he spoke, women starting leaving the room. By the end of his talk, there were no women hackers in the room."
- Gender inequality is a social problem for both women and men to solve
- Larry Summers is wrong (There is no conclusive research that women's brains are different)
- Historical statistics aren't particularly helpful
- Women in high tech and the sciences exist, thank you very much.
She cited statistics from National Science Foundation Studies
In 1985, 36% of bachelors degrees in CS by women.
In 1995, 28% of bachelors degrees in CS by women.
In 2001, 27% of bachelors degrees in CS by women.
What does this mean? That women should behave in way that is more feminine (that is, they don’t play with machines)? Are women less interested in technology/science? Another way to look at the numbers, it seems like there are cultural forces at work that are pushing women out of taking jobs in the sciences or that woman have internalized.
However, if you look at long-term from 1966 to 2001: engineering degrees went from 0% to 21% in 2001. There is a generation of people educating the next generation. It doesn't happen fast, but is growing.
We need to be asking: How do we make the future safe for female geeks?
Annalee Newitz said, "We need to look carefully at the women who are participating in science and technology. Look at the social and cultural myths that are holding women back. We need to question fantasies and myths about science and women. How are those myths holding women back?"
Women aren't interested in technology
She showed some examples of female geeks, from Ada Lovelace in the early 19th century to a group of female robot designers. Look, there are plenty of examples of women interested in technology.
Smart women (geeks) aren't pretty - and women should be pretty
This myth claims that you have to be unattractive and wear glasses to be a geek. And pretty girls don’t code because they'd rather be ice skating, dating boys, etc. How does a brainy girl become a "real girl", and have the same experiences as other girls? Answer (according to this myth): The girl takes off her glasses. If she wants to be successful and pretty (and have sex!), this myth requires her to take off her glasses.
Society is giving women a false choice: Either keep the glasses on and do the technical work, or take the glasses off and have a dating life.
She went on to explain that the principle way people get ahead in sciences is through mentoring. If men dominate, your mentors will be male. There is anxiety about an older man mentoring a younger woman. (They can always take off their glasses!) The concern is that he is just mentoring her because she is judged a "cutie." That struggle doesn’t exist between two (heterosexual) men, allegedly.
Women would rather stay up all night with babies than stay up all night in the lab.
The myth of "family responsibilities" keeps women from working in science and technology. It's propaganda and it's working. Society is saying that if you have kids, you can't work. No real reason. Look at the propaganda. Why can't they bring their babies to the computer lab?
"Raising children isn't a special job, it just takes planning?" [I wonder if Annalee has kids? Even if you have a balance with your spouse and childcare options, it is hard to balance both demanding work and demanding children. - Beth] Women are given a false choice: either a job or raising kids.
These myths are ones that women have internalized and are imposing upon themselves, in addition to society constantly imposing these myths upon women.
She suggested that we "propagate memes" - as she called to the bloghers in the room - go forth and propogate memes!
Female nerds need to organize. She then gave these examples:
These are "female dominated groups, but men can join."
Geeks fight for the future! -- Know the basic myths that are holding people back and informing their opinions of themselves and each other. Myth busting. Men and women are allies in this - women don't need to do it alone. In order to change, both genders need to work together.