Help me out here- I can't make up my mind about this. Is a super model and actress an appropriate judge of a youth programming competition? There was an article in yesterday's Guardian about how the supermodel and actress Lily Cole will be judging the Young Rewired State programming competition this year. There is something about this which makes my skin crawl slightly but I think I am being unfair. What do you think?
Here's some more background. Young Rewired State is a fabulous UK programming competition which brings together programmers (under 18 years old) to work with more experienced software developer mentors to create socially useful applications which harness open data sets. There is a a very cute example of an app from last year created by under 10s in a public library which visualised data on happiness in different English counties as asteroids. YRS seems like a great idea to me, and I must remember to encourage my students to sign up as mentors. [Hey, students! Sign up as mentors!]
Lily Cole has a double first from Cambridge. She appears to be thoughtful, articulate and humble, and holds laudable views about the gift economy. She is founder of a social website called impossible.com so I can see the connection to the aims of the YRS competition. I have no doubt she could be inspiring to the young programmers.
So why do I feel uneasy about this? Let's see... her double first is in history of art, not computer science! She has no technical background. Her celebrity status (which in turn is gained from her appearance) seems to have been a factor in recruiting her as a judge. This worries me in the wake of the ridiculous EU Science:It's a Girl Thing debacle from last week. In this video, developed by the European Commission, gorgeous women in high heels prance around shaking test tubes making male scientists peer at them above their spectacles. The video has been widey derided (apparently it's not judge me who vomits when watching it). An interesting New Scientist article in reponse to the video quotes a study which found that girls are demotivated by seeing (manufactured) successs stories of female scientists with overtly feminine characteristics."Worse still, girls who already disliked science were especially demotivated by the feminine scientists. Sekaquaptewa [the researcher] says this was probably because they saw simultaneous success in both domains as totally unattainable." I totally understand this: who has the time?
I don't like the thought of girls being turned off the programming competition because they feel they can't be both geeky and gorgeous. But then, Lily Cole is gorgeous but not geeky. Will girls think they can bypass the geeky bit as long as they are gorgeous? What message does it send to boys if the high profile women are not programmers? Will they care, or will they just like to shake hands with the pretty lady? Am I just a bitter old hag? But mostly, I wonder: why didn't YRS get a female geek as a judge instead?