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.

The mechanics of "open"

March 9, 2009 | Leave a comment

PanelSince we started Elgg, I’ve always kept a very open philosophy about how the software should work. From the human perspective, we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible, with an easy-to-use interface and innards that allowed you to do very technical things (like, in Elgg 0.x, republishing aggregated RSS) with very little knowhow. From the organizational perspective, we didn’t want there to be a barrier to entry; we released it under the GNU Public License and allowed anyone to download and install it for free. And technically, we allowed anyone to augment, extend and replace its functionality, maintained an open architecture and embraced technologies like FOAF, RSS and so on.

That was five years ago. The world is only now beginning to catch up.

The Silicon Valley Web community is buzzing with “open” ideas: data portability, the open stack, the open mesh, OpenID, OAuth, and so on. There have been two Data Sharing Summits, a bunch of Identity Workshops, and efforts are crystallizing around open activity streams, contacts sharing, and virtually anything else you might want to transfer between web applications. David Recordon, co-creator of OpenID and all-round cheerleader for openness, has predicted that Facebook won’t be a walled garden by 2010.

This is fantastic stuff, which I intend to get even more involved with as the year progresses. Good work is happening all round, and even sleepy behemoths like Microsoft are beginning to take notice.

What worries me slightly is that the work is centered around the Silicon Valley community, and within that is largely built with public-facing commercial websites in mind. Those sites (like Digg, MySpace, the SixApart properties and so on) are awesome without a doubt, but the potential of social technologies falls well beyond the commercial web. People are beginning to use them on intranets, within universities, across governmental departments and so on – places that could use the same approaches, but need to be represented in the discussions.

Their exclusion is not the fault of the people producing the standards and doing this great work; they’re very happily welcoming anyone with a productive contribution to the table. Instead, it falls to those organizations to realize what they’re missing out on and begin to pay more attention to cutting edge technology. The Obama administration is certainly waking up to this, but others – notably the UK government – are extremely reticent to embrace anything open at all.

The technology is falling into place to allow for an open, transparent, knowledge-orientated economy. Now it’s time to look at what else is needed.

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