[Cross posted from my CACM blog]
While strolling through the ACM pages last week I came across an advert for a book compellingly titled “How to Be a Geek Goddess ” by Christina Tynan-Wood. I rather wish I hadn't. And so will you by the time you reach the end of this rant.
Might this book be about the finer points of CoffeeScript? Does it muse on the Church-Turing thesis?Will there be hints on how to hack the Kinect? Sadly, I discovered that it provides none of the above. What it does provide is a nauseating set of tips aimed at technophobic ladies so they don't have to ask their menfolk for help with computers. The author's husband, who naturally is allowed the first words in the book, remarks: “They [women] call it empowerment. I call it getting them out of my hair. Either way, it works for me. And it will for you too.”
A perusal of the table of contents reveals exciting chapters on the daunting topic of buying a new computer, who to ask for technical help, online shopping, and of course online dating. Naturally women would only be interested in technology as a means of pursuing their gentle womanly interests, rather than pursuing scientific curiosity or expanding their intellectual horizons. Shame on you O'Reilly , normally reputable purveyor of tech books for stocking this one!
In the introduction the author makes a point which has a grain of truth in my experience: “I think it is the rare man who doesn't have a tendency to puff up his chest and pontificate—even on subjects he knows little or nothing about. And because technology is a subject that is both vast and ever changing, it is a topic that brings out male bluster in full force. Even though bluster is a completely harmless side effect of testosterone, I think it has conspired with a few other factors in the modern woman's life—overwork, stress, information overload—to cause a negative reaction. Because men act so confident on the subject, and it's such a slippery topic, women react with apathy toward the world of technology. It's an apathy that's often mixed with regret, anxiety, and a desperate feeling of incomprehension.” I have come across blustery male geeks at various stages of my career both as the recipient of bluster as a computer science student, and as one who gently attempts to prevent such bluster as a computer science lecturer. I have not, however, used my experiences as a bluster victim as an excuse for not engaging with technology.
Throughout the book, there are (probably- hopefully- fictional) letters from readers asking questions about technology. The one in which a reader asks about the Internet made me sad: “I know you won't laugh at me for asking this so here goes. Even though my husband is a supergeek and I use the Internet daily, my six-year-old son asked me what the Internet is, and I realized that I don't really know the answer. I showed it to him, but he wanted to know where it was and what it was made of, even who owns it. I distracted him with cookies and wished he'd asked my husband so I could listen in on the answer. That was weeks ago, and now it's bothering me. What exactly is the Internet?” If there really are women who find themselves in this unhappy position, then maybe it is a good thing that there is a book to help them. If they can stand being patronized in such an outrageous fashion, perhaps it will genuinely be of service. But surely women can expect to take more ownership in the world of technology? Surely we can be innovating, designing and creating instead of shuffling along behind blustering men?
Why am I so het up about this (apart from the sheer fun of such an easy target)? Because while the issue of lack of female representation in the world of computing is far from new, it is still egregious. In 2010, only 18% of the IT workforce in the UK were female , and this situation has got worse since last year .Only 12% of ACM members are female ). A paltry 9% of the Computer Science students in our university are female. We can’t stop trying to change this.
If you happen to be shopping for a book for a woman in your life, I recommend Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine instead of "How to be a Geek Goddess". It is an extremely funny, surprising and well researched investigation of the gender myths which still perpetuate in our society. It makes the case that children’s attitudes to gender are established very early as a result of saturation in a highly gender stereotyped culture. The clothes they wear, the toys they play with, the utensils from which they eat, the behaviour of their adult carers, the books they read and the TV programs which they watch all contain strong messages about what is appropriate for males and females. We know from Margolis and Fisher’s work that boys are more likely to be encouraged to use technology and become interested in computer programming by role models at home than girls are. And no wonder if their mothers and sisters and aunts are busy reading books which try to persuade them to “take arms and become a geek goddess” by being lame users of technology. We don’t need books which propagate stereotypes about women’s interactions with technology. We need books which can appeal to everyone – male or female – and convince them that they too can play a part in the ongoing technological revolution.