So What?

by Shelley Powers
09/06/2007

Shelley Powers has been working with, and writing about, web technologies--from the first release of JavaScript to the latest graphics and design tools--for more than 12 years. Her recent O'Reilly books have covered the semantic web, Ajax, JavaScript, and web graphics.

A few weeks back, the book Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think hit the streets. What a terrific concept: get several prominent programmers to write about their own unique perspective on programming and donate the money to a good cause (Amnesty International). It was, and still is, a good idea and book. What problem could I possibly have with it?

A quick look at the Table of Contents gives you a hint: of the 38 programmers who contributed to the book, only one was a woman. Just one woman. Even by today's standards with few women staying in the field—and even fewer entering—the ratio of men to women in this book, frankly, sucks.

A discussion arose about the lack of women authors in this book, which included the fact that some of the women who were invited to contribute declined. There were the usual statements, the usual questions asked: "Give us lists of relevant women," "Who should we have invited?" Yada, yada, yada, business as usual.

However, there were several comments that I found disquieting because they reflected other discussions we've had in the last year about the issue of the declining numbers of women in technology. The wording used has differed, but the views basically reduced down to, "So what?"

There is only one woman who contributed to the book. So what?

There are no women presenting at the conference. So what?

No women are listed among these top designers/developers/experts. So what?

Before this last year—regardless of the situation and the participants, regardless of the reasons people give for the growing lack of diversity in the tech field, regardless of solutions offered—one thing all participants in these discussions seemed to agree on was that this lack of women was not a good thing. Lately, though, I'm seeing a disinterest in the whole issue; an increasingly vocal opinion that it just really doesn't matter.

I never lack for opinion, but this one has me stumped. Here we are in 2007, in an era where the numbers of women in "non-traditional" professions have been increasing, sometimes even past the 50 percent mark. No longer do women have to stay at home or choose only "soft" professions. We now have more choices, and the only limits we seemingly face are those we bring with us. Women serve in the military and die in action, lead major corporations, argue cases in the Supreme Court, and are anything from rocket scientists to neurosurgeons.

Yet in the IT fields, our numbers are dwindling. Significantly. We all have ideas why this is occurring, but nothing concrete that we can point at and say, "There, that's why!" It's a true puzzle. What's more puzzling, though, is how many in the technology field just don't care. They don't see that a field that is becoming increasingly only male is a problem.

Is it a problem? Probably not, if only men use the gadgets, only men use the software, only men are impacted by the applications, and so on. Yet, we know that women typically use software as much or more than men. Women use the Internet, as much or more than men. Women buy and use the gadgets. What's happening is that all the population is using an increasing number of applications that are architected, designed, developed, quality tested, and documented by only half the population. Less than half, because the tech industry lacks diversity when it comes to race, too.

Maybe I'm just being a woman and all, but I look at this and I think to myself: are we really creating the best software? Are we really designing the best gadgets, the most useful web sites, the superior applications? How can we be, if more than half the population has no input in any aspect of the development and design process?

So, so what.

I've long felt that the IT field is one of the few where the participants are focused on the tools, rather than the tasks. I believe that integrating IT into the engineering field as a complete and separate discipline was a huge mistake—not the least of which is that engineering is the only other discipline where the numbers of women are dropping (big hint, there).

Our field would be better if it were integrated with the librarian sciences, psychology, business, English, art—associated with tasks and topics, rather than grouped around the tools and processes. This makes even more sense when you realize that many people who enter the field do so with no degrees or with degrees in completely unrelated disciplines. It's not unusual to hear from both sexes that they drifted into development or design because of a growing interest that was unrelated to their initial course of study. Imagine how much stronger the IT field would be if we bring in all these diverse viewpoints right from the start.

My recommendation? Break up the computer science programs, split the participants into specialized fields within other disciplines, and stop spending all our time on talking about Ruby and how cool it is. See? There's a solution, and all it requires is basically ripping apart the entire field and rearranging the chunks.

Whatever solutions we arrive at to increase the number of women in technology, none are going to work if there isn't general consensus that the lack of diversity is a problem. That we all, at a minimum, agree that the computer field, as it is now, is broken. That we need to find solutions. More importantly that we all have to buy into the solutions, because whatever we come up with is going to impact on all of us, including those who say, "So what?"


Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher.


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