People in tech: some women who have influenced me

October 7, 2011 | 2 comments

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today; an opportunity to “share your story about a woman — whether an engineer, a scientist, a technologist or mathematician — who has inspired you to become who you are today.”

There are so many technologists who I admire that happen to be women. But there’s only one person this post can possibly start with.

How I got into computers.

Trinidad

Both my parents are directly responsible for the direction of my career. My mother taught me BASIC and sat through Pascal tutorials with me; she typed in programs with me; she inspired me by learning how to program herself. Later, she used her business qualifications to become a financial analyst for the multimedia and mobile phone industries, directly inspiring me to start Spire Magazine, the ezine I’d edit through high school. When we couldn’t afford a cutting-edge computer, she arranged to start a weekly computer club where kids my age could mess around with them on a Thursday night. She took me along to MILIA, the European multimedia expo in Cannes, where I saw how technology is sold. She gave me inside information about the software industry and talked to me about the background deals behind events like the Windows 95 launch. All this while also being my moral compass, teacher and all the amazing things that parents do for their children. Both my parents are astonishing people, and I’m lucky to have them.

(She’s now an 8th Grade Physics teacher, and says that it’s the best job of her life, which tells you a lot about her. That inspires me too.)

Building interfaces for society.

I’ve actually only had one email exchange with danah boyd, and it had nothing to do with technology. (We’re both Ani DiFranco fans, and she maintains an incredibly comprehensive lyrics archive; I let her know that Righteous Babe Records used her site to print out a lyrics-heavy setlist so that a close, profoundly deaf friend could follow along during a gig.) But I keep up with her work, which is not just required reading for everyone involved in online communities, but should inspire all of us to think about the deep interactions between those communities and peoples’ lives. It’s through danah that we know that teenagers have a much more nuanced attitude to privacy that is normally talked about (a piece that I find myself citing increasingly regularly). And if her bibliography of social networking research isn’t in your bookmarks, and you’re in the field, you’re doing something wrong. I wish I could spend more of my career following in these footsteps; this is fascinating, vital stuff that has helped me make better things.

Making it.

The first time I spoke at the Edinburgh TechMeetup, it was about the decentralized social web. I’m pretty sure I’d come out of Elgg, and was also full of thoughts about how you should (or shouldn’t) run a startup.

One of the people who came up to me afterwards was Kate Ho, who had just finished her PhD in Computer Science and was starting Interface3, a consultancy business based around creating multitouch software. I don’t think I gave her any useful advice, but it was good to meet her. The next time I turned up at TechMeetup – not six months later – the company had been shortlisted for a Shell award. It’s been going from strength to strength since then, creating innovative multitouch apps that are more niche than rockstar flashy (often for the education market), but are profitable. Building a successful technology business in Scotland is not an easy thing to do, and what she’s doing is awe-inspiring. Companies like Interface3 don’t get the coverage of startups like Foursquare or AirBNB, but are every bit as important. Interface3 is hiring, by the way, and Kate’s story is an important lesson in just getting down and doing it.

Taking flight.

Finally, and without wanting to be sycophantic, I want to write a note about Jade Kurian, the President of latakoo. Her homepage says she’s a journalist, but don’t let that fool you (although she is that too). I’ve been around since latakoo took shape, and during that time she’s become among the most technologically skilled people in the company, happy to dive into codec details, read RFCs, talk through integration details. She’s not a declared scientist, but has become a de facto technologist as well as a tech entrepreneur, and I’m very glad every day to be working with her.

Who else?

Everyone. Monica Wilkinson‘s work with Activity Streams is incredibly important fo the future of the social web. Amber Case‘s work on cyborg anthropology is a source of awe to me and has changed the way I think about technology (and people). I’ve always admired the things Leah Culver builds – my own skills don’t compare. Daily Information Managing Director Miranda Rose – who I’ve known since we were both tiny – taught herself to program to keep her business going. There are so many role models for women in technology, and the Internet is amazing: I feel lucky to have been exposed to the ideas of all of these remarkable people.

Uncreative thinking for such a creative industry

July 28, 2011 | Leave a comment

I wrote a post – okay, a rant – over on Google+ about sexism in the software industry:

Tim O’Reilly had to post a code of conduct for his conferences, which made immediate waves. (Quite a few of the women I know who aren’t in the tech sphere shared it with me.) I’ve heard accounts of women having to deal with all kinds of come-ons, and being physically assaulted as if it was nothing, at tech events. Even in the comments to his post here on G+, people were suggesting that their Asperger’s Syndrome meant that they didn’t understand how to deal with social situations, and should be excused from this kind of thing. Bullshit: none of the aspies I know are misogynist pricks. That’s because, while they are awkward in some social situations, they have at least half a brain.

The whole thing’s over here. And of course, you can add me on Google+ here.

Gender differences on the new frontier

March 10, 2009 | 16 comments

It’s a commonly accepted fact that computing is a male-dominated industry, but I was shocked by the scale of the inequality. Okay, this is kind of unscientific, but take a look at these statistics:

  • Female population of the world: 49.8%
  • Female population of Facebook: 55%
  • Female population of social networks as a whole: 54.7%
  • Percentage of people awarded undergraduate computer science degrees by PhD-granting institutions in the US and Canada in 2006-7 who were women: 12%

While social media usage is skewed ever so slightly towards women, a whopping 88% of the people who study to learn the skills to build these tools are men. This is at a time when, in science generally, women receiving undergraduate degrees are increasing as a percentage year on year.

Some of the reasons for this have been covered a lot over the past year. This 2007 interview with Aaron Swartz (who worked on Creative Commons and is now behind the awesome government site Watchdog.net) contains some interesting thoughts on discrimination on the basis of both gender and race:

If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them. It freaks them out; and rightly so. As a result, the only women you see in tech are those who are willing to put up with all the abuse.

[...] The denial about this in the tech community is so great that sometimes I despair of it ever getting fixed. [...] It’s an institutional problem, not a personal one.

Last year, Chris Messina called out a BusinessWeek article for disproportionately featuring the male participants at Web2Open, a Web 2.0 technology unconference Tara Hunt had predominantly organized. He followed it up this month with another post about the Future of Web Apps as a white boys’ club:

Turns out, white men also don’t have the monopoly on the best speakers – even in the tech industry – yet their ilk continue to make up a highly disproportionate number of the folks who end up on stage. And that means that good content and good ideas and important perspectives aren’t making it into the mix that should be, and as a result, audiences are getting short-changed.

This isn’t just about technology, and it isn’t just about the commercial web. We’re in an era where everything is going online; Barack Obama would arguably not be President of the United States without his engagement with grassroots social media technologies, and he is certainly continuing to embrace them into his Presidency. Yet if those technologies are effectively controlled by a minority of the population, that population’s biases and predispositions seep into how they’re designed, how they’re built, and ultimately how they work in practice.

Although I’ve picked out gender here, the same is doubtless true regarding race and sexuality discrimination in the tech sector, although the numbers haven’t been as widely published. As computing becomes more and more important in society as a whole, it becomes more and more important to ensure the people who help shape it are selected fairly and represent a cross-section of the people it serves.

Update: Lots of really interesting links in the comments, including Katie Piatt’s recommendation of Ada Lovelace Day, which encourages people to blog about women in tech.

Meitar Moscovitz points me to Will the Semantic Web Have a Gender?, a ReadWriteWeb article from last year about the possibility that the semantic web will reflect a predominantly male attitude to the world.

Image by mouton.rebelle and released under a CC-Attribution-Noncommercial license.