Sunday, 9 March 2014

On being a woman in technology

Flowers for Internation Women's Day
Flowers for International Women's Day
Yesterday was International Women's Day and there was a plethora of blog posts and twitter messages identifying various inspirational women. Twenty five years ago I would have found this unnecessary, demeaning even. But now, with a pre-teenage daughter about to enter secondary school, with her whole life ahead of her, I'm increasingly concerned about the world that she is about to encounter.

I grew up with just one sister, no brothers. We were never told that there were career paths not open to us. We both ended up taking Computer Science degrees and both continue to work in technology. I went to an all-girls convent school. I took Honours Maths and Physics, because I liked them. Originally I wanted to be an accountant (like my dad) or an actuary. But then I got the CS bug, and decided that's what I wanted to do. I graduated in 1990, one of 8 girls in a class of 34 computer scientists - that's almost 25% female. I took a joint honours degree in Maths and Computer Science; of four of us to graduate with this degree, 2 were female.

When I started lecturing computer science, the first group to graduate (in 1999) had five women out of 13 (almost 40%). For the first few years, as class sizes increased, the ratio of female students remained around 35%. But then something happened. Jump forward to the final year class of 2009, the last undergraduate CS class I taught, when there was not one female in the group.

Twenty five years ago, I thought Women in Technology was an unnecessary movement and wanted nothing to do with it. Today, it's a recognised problem. Catherine Cronin has written a much more informed article about the issue. There are various articles about why we need more women in technology. We also hear that women entering the field are likely to face a difficult culture. I think it's also true to say that many women who work in technology, like myself, are bewildered by the situation. Mounia Lalmas, who did her Phd at the same time as me, in the early 1990s, and who is a brilliant computer scientist, wrote about this recently. Perhaps Mounia's post, more than any other, has inspired me to write this today.

One suggestion that keeps coming up is that young women need more (female) role models. Like Catherine Cronin (in the article mentioned above), I don't subscribe to this as the solution.

I note that many recommendations focus on role models and mentoring for girls. I believe such initiatives are powerful and necessary, but by no means sufficient in effecting the level of change that is required. - Catherine Cronin

I had no female role models. I adored and feared (in equal measure) my Maths teacher at school (Mrs Kelly), but I never wanted to be her. As an undergraduate, I had no female lecturers in either Maths or Computing. The first time I encountered a female academic in CS was after I had started my PhD. And, as Mounia writes "why do I want to be like somebody else?"

I was certainly inspired and influenced by various people, male and female, and I was lucky as an undergraduate and postgraduate student to have people who encouraged and supported me. I never noticed a gender imbalance; although clearly it did exist, it just wasn't an issue. I'd like to subscribe to Mounia's conclusions:

 listen to advices and recommendations, and decide what is RIGHT for you. Change what YOU think should change while remaining you. Take responsibility. And enjoy being you. - Mounia Lalmas

But ultimately, I do believe that there is a culture problem. I find it hard to accept that this exists in 2014, but evidence suggests that the situation is getting worse, and I fear for my daughter's future. And here is my problem with role models: no woman should have to be a role model for her gender. I don't want to push my daughter, who is clever, sociable, sassy and very much her own person, into a STEM career, just to make up the numbers.

I had a conversation last week with a bright young postgrad student. She started out, in college in the US, as a Maths student, the only female in her class. After some time, she realised that she would prefer to major in English Literature. She felt guilty in making that change, because she felt she was letting down her whole gender. It took a strong woman to choose Maths in the first place, and an even stronger woman to give it up.

So, here's to all the strong women out there - you know who you are.



Frances Bell said...

Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. There is such a lot of emphasis on improving equality at various stages of education but, as you suggest realisation of women's capabilities is a much wider issue. I thought you might be interested in some research done a few years ago (though I fear the situation had not improved). Here's the report on a project done by former colleagues

Sharon Flynn said...

Thank you Frances, for your comment and for the link to this report. It looks very interesting. I've downloaded it and look forward to reading it in detail.


Angela Navejas said...

This is really a nice blog in this you shared real qualities of woman and give the equality at every phase of life.

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