Darren Waters

Women and technology

  • Darren Waters
  • 6 May 08, 11:22 GMT

Meg WhitmanAre there enough women working in technology?

I don't have any figures to hand, but I think it's safe to say that women are woefully under-represented in the technology industries.

A survey landed on my desk this morning, commissioned from Research in Motion, which said 73% of girls aged 11 to 16 believe there is a gap between school interest in technology and a career in the industry because of a lack of UK female role models.

I've been struggling to think of some UK specific examples. So if you've any suggestions, send them on.

But here are a few high-flying women from outside the UK who have succeeded in the tech world and who should act as excellent role models:

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer - the first female engineer to be hired at Google. She (pictured) is now in charge of search and user experiences at the web giant.

Meg Whitman - until very recently, chief executive of auction giant Ebay.

Mary Lou Jepsen
- architect of the design of the $100 laptop for the One Laptop Per Child program, and is currently looking at commercial spin offs of the technology.

Anne Mulcahy - chairman and chief executive of Xerox, one of the world's leading tech innovators.
Patricia Russo
Patricia Russo
- head of Alcatel-Lucent, one of the world's biggest network firms.

Susan Desmond-Hellman
- head of product development for Genentech, one of the founders of the biotech industries.

And it's not as if successful women in technology are a new thing. Consider Ada Lovelace, viewed by many as the world's first computer programmer. And she was doing her thing back in the 19th Century.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Does it matter if women are under-represented in IT? Maybe it's just one of those areas where they're not inclined to work?

    I've worked in IT for a number of years. Both my children (Girls, now in their mid-twenties) had a lot of exposure to IT through school work and through access to PCs at home, yet neither was particularly inclined to work in IT. The only reason either of them used it was for school/college work, and only then because it was required.

    I've tried to quiz them about why they don't want to go into IT (especially as it can provide a very good income to buy lots of handbags, clothes and shoes), but neither showed any inclination towards the area. They've both gone into caring professions (teaching and nursing).

    I suspect this is probably a social thing that we are not willing to admit to because it is not "politically correct" to do so. The female mindset is just not inclined towards IT, in the same way that I'm not inclined towards either of the professions they have entered.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think men are vastly under-represented in midwifery.

  • Comment number 4.

    As a female working in IT/technology, it's something I wanted to do, but the opportunities through school were severely restricted - there just weren't the courses available for me.

    Luckily I have always had a computer at home as one of my parents works in IT so I have grown up with computers.

    As to women role models in technology in general - the only one of those mentioned in the article that I'd heard of was Ada Lovelace! I think more needs to be done to a) promote technology as a role girls can do at school (i.e. it's not just for boys) and b) actually make more technological things available to girls - if we're not given the same range of opportunities in the field early on and throughout school, of course we're not going to be taking it up because we haven't been taught how!

  • Comment number 5.

    Look at Spain where IT (any office work) is considered "Women’s work".

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    I have always been considered a bit of a geek by girl standards always into computers, gadgets games etc. All seen as traditionally male areas but it is not a problem there are more and more women starting to work in traditional male occupations including maths, engineering. Its a slow process breaking down gender barriers but we have to remember not everyone wants to do certain jobs as a career you can't force girls into being a Network engineer!

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm female, a sound engineer, video editor, DVD author, etc, etc, etc. So for the past 15+ years, I've worked in what is seen as male-dominated, technology-driven industry. I've always had a fascination for the sciences, so for me a stereotypically "female" job never appealed in the slightest.

    These days, girls at school aren't encouraged to THINK and certainly not to consider sciences or technology as a valid career path.

    Why? I don't know. Maybe 'celeb culture' has a lot to do with it...

  • Comment number 9.

    Ok now the comment which i would like to make, please dont take it like i am biased towards gender but i have seen that in uni and in industry (generally speaking) women cannot do "Programming", and i have also seen women who can do more good programming than men but they will be not be more than 5%.

  • Comment number 10.

    What about Vanessa Fox?

    She did a great job!

  • Comment number 11.

    Ugh. People keep saying IT... There are plenty of women in IT, any office job uses it. Engineering and programming, that sort of thing (that I, also female, have applied for for uni) is the subject here.

    And knowing the kind of people who apply for that kind of degree, or job, or whatever, then it's most likely to be the interest factor that keeps women away. They just aren't interested in fiddling with wires or lines of script in strange, nerdy language.

    Although education could also be a big factor: computing isn't really an option in most sixth form colleges around here, especially not the one for girls that I currently attend.

  • Comment number 12.

    I work in science and am associated with various other high tech disciplines as a result. One of the major reasons there aren't that many women with in the areas I work, are that they simply find the subject areas a turn off. If, for example, I attempt to discuss the implications of what I do, some of which are far reaching and potentially revolutionary, the majority of women immediately hit snooze and switch off. The women I do know working in these areas are capable of gaining respect and any career they choose on the basis of merit and working to a better level than their peer group - i.e. as is the case for men. There are of course, issues of discrimination often associated with the older males within the work environment but such instances are viewed very poorly by the younger males with whom I work.

    My biggest worry is what happens if we artificially reduce the numbers of men working in these areas in the name of quotas? Where do these men go? Are we going to change social attitudes such that more men are seen as safe to work in child care, for example? Are men going to be taken more seriously in nursing, midwifery, the care industry? Are the inequalities that exist for men venturing into traditionally female roles going to be actively eroded?

    It seems to be more complex than arbitrarily to worry only about women in technology. For women who clearly want and are interested in these areas there absolutely should be efforts made to make this possible. However, shifting recruitment for jobs or university places in the favour of women is neither fair nor the answer. All should succeed on merit alone, in a system that all must work to make less prejudice and less difficult for women. We must also be sure to ascertain that the perceived inequalities and prejudices are indeed that and not merely the same exact trials and struggles faced by anyone attempting to have a very successful career.

  • Comment number 13.

    Depends on what you call a 'tech' industry. If you include science then women are increasingly high profile. I started working offshore in geophysics in 1980, one of very, very few women. Now half the people I see going out on survey ships are female. Geology and geophysics draws more and more women every year, and I also see more women in industrial chemistry and especially the high tech bio-sciences, genetics etc.

    By the way, it amuses me how guys who wouldn't have been seen dead at a typewriter a generation ago, now boast about their keyboard skills!! I'm a hopeless typist!

  • Comment number 14.

    I am sorry to see some of the comments in this blog, most men in the world of Tech do get married and we do have daughters and we understand the problems. No one I know believes there are differences in ability. But given the choice many young Ladies would prefer to do something less dry. Perhaps we they have common sense beyond the boys.
    I must take issue with at least half of the woman held up as leaders. Looking at the backgrounds I see sales and marketing. This really only adds to the issues. It really looks like science does not get you very far and leads young women to think another path would be better.

  • Comment number 15.

    I'm guessing that the people posting the "women don't like this sort of thing" aren't actually working in technical jobs!
    Any computer scientist worth their salt will know about Grace Hopper - not only did she bring the word "bug" into programming usage, but she practically invented 3GL programming. Also, anyone in the Microsoft Developer communities will be aware of Michele Leroux Bustamante, Kalen Delaney, and Kimberly Tripp - all hard-core techies and leaders in their respective fields.

    Yes, there are less women in IT, but to suggest that it's because their less capable is unsubstantiated rot. Perhaps it's because they think that arrogance is an essential prerequisite - many male programmers certainly think so!

  • Comment number 16.

    I work in IT and have done so ever since school. In school I studied computer studies when it was a proper subject , teaching hsitory of computing, the logic, flow charts and programming. Not how to use microsoft products in an office environment, which seems covers computer studies in schools these days. That said even then, 24years ago, girls were not encouraged to take either computer studies or out of the three sciences, physics.
    These days I think women aren't in hard core IT jobs because flexible working, be it part time or job share, to enable family life, just isn't there and I haven't in all my years in IT, seen a "proper" IT job offer either as wroking hours. It should also be remembered that in IT, there is alot of on-demand, mostly unpaid, overtime when servers etc go down and need to be put back on line.
    If part-time/job-share IT job offers were made, I'm sure lots more women may enter IT and continue to stay in it after starting families.

  • Comment number 17.

    I very much agree with Geldie. And I also observe the parrallels with female-dominated industries or professions which dont attract the same analysis or suggestions of under-representation regarding how few men work therin. From my own experience as an IT professional, I have seen women in this business for as long as I've been in it. However, womens paths take a different route, very few come in as tecs and those that do seem to have an accelerated career path toward management over and above male counterparts, mainly because companies are under pressure to have 'representation' of women in the roles of responsibity. Personally, all the women I know in IT earn much more than their male counter parts (of equivalent age/experience) so from my perspective it's preposterous to suggest there is some inequity. Fewer numbers doesnt equate to discrimination by default.

    In fact the IT departments of larger companies seem to be top-heavy with female managers - where I work for example, tecs are all male, the managerial roles however, are around two-thirds female. Could one argue that a disproportionate number of managers are female or that men are being kept in the lower paid roles?

    Further more, as previously mentioned, many female dominated areas dont recieve attention or efforts to increase numbers of men, for example nursing, midwifery, teaching, HR, all areas that are vastly female dominated. It's curious that if an area is male dominated, terms like 'under-representation' and 'bias' and 'discrimination' are always used, yet if an area is female dominated, we just accept it as being OK (and why not!) - it's a social preconception that there must always be an agenda of prejudice or discrimination if women (apparently) arent making their mark on traditionaly male areas.

  • Comment number 18.

    I've been an engineer in the computer industry for over 20 years. I feel that it has improved since I was the only female 'techie' when I first started. Having said that it has improved, it still has a long way to go, in my current company the female engineers are less than 10% of the developement group.

    The examples you have quoted are all good, but have they all truly worked their way up from being engineers? I have found that the background for most CEOs in technology firms is far more likely to be sales or marketing, rather than the technical side.

  • Comment number 19.

    In common with fredirat, I would like to know how many of the women listed in the article are of a truly techie nature themselves, and how many simply manage the techies.

    I am female, and I don't quite fit the bill of what you're looking for here because I'm a mechanical engineer, but I feel I have some qualification to comment at least.

    I despair a little at some of the comments I'm reading here, but it is certainly reflective of public opinion. I have the respect of the men I work with (I think), but still have to live through a lot of generally sexist discussion at work (wherein I, of course, am often excepted because 'you don't count as a woman') - and it doesn't bother me too much. But I can certainly see that a lot of women would be put off by an all-male working environment, regardless of whether they are good programmers or not.

    I agree that men are under-represented in traditionally 'female' roles, but I don't see why one inequality is a reason to ignore another. There are plenty of women (indeed, most of my friends, surprisingly enough) who are very competent at science/tech and enjoy the challenges it presents. Please don't suggest we'd all be happier working in the make-up industry...

  • Comment number 20.

    Why, oh why do stupid people still rant on and on about under-representation in anything !! Is there some kind of politically correct heaven where everything is *EXACTLY* equally divided between various parts, factions, gender, etc. ??

    All the females that are interested in IT of one sort or another are already there !! Those that aren't interested will simply stay away. Is anyone going to put a gun to some girl's head and force her to work in IT ??

    This is political correctness gone lunatic !! Better you should ask why are male models highly under-represented in modeling female swimwear ??

    FYI, ALL my programmers are of extremely high calibre, well paid, very interested in IT and very female !! So there !!

  • Comment number 21.

    "I agree that men are under-represented in traditionally 'female' roles, but I don't see why one inequality is a reason to ignore another".

    But thats the point many here are making. If the inequalities associated with women are tackled, have focus groups and reports directed at them, it seems a worrying trend that the inequalities for men are being ignored.

    "There are plenty of women (indeed, most of my friends, surprisingly enough) who are very competent at science/tech and enjoy the challenges it presents. Please don't suggest we'd all be happier working in the make-up industry..."

    I hope that’s not the opinion I gave, it certainly wasn't my intention. Perhaps my situation is a little different in that I speak from a physical sciences background, where, in my experience, women often haven't shown the level of interest the men have within both the educational stages and work (and there is certainly something to said of the perceived "mans world" affect putting women off). However, that is changing in my field and routinely more women professionals are attending conferences and really making their mark in the field. There is a good spread of women (i.e. perhaps 30-40% of the higher level staff) with my organisation many with very impressive credentials and research portfolios, so it is happening. Apart from anything else, lest we forget Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin as examples particularly from the physical sciences, as to the contribution women have made - in both these particular cases making monumental contributions and sacrificing their lives for science (yes, I know Rosalind Franklin got a rough deal in it all and shamefully was not awarded the Nobel prize).

    However, my comments are more from perspective, perhaps selfishly, of a man increasingly feeling that there is not an equal focus in these matters. Certainly their is more to be done to make sure the contributions of women are felt and seen more readily in the technology and science areas and that opportunities are there for both sexes equally. However, there are so rarely focus groups or reports about the roles of men in society, the areas where men face inequalities (yes, there are many for us too!). These kinds of reports feel like a plaster over a wound instead of facing the real challenges of changing perception of both sexes in the work place and society as a whole. I just don't think arbitrarily skewing the numbers with focused-drives, faced at one sex really addresses that problem at all. Perhaps all this comes down to the media and its affect on perception of the sexes.

    If people really want to change the situation for women in male dominated roles, then the powers that be within companies and organisations need to start to take far more seriously cases of harassment/unfair treatment and make examples of higher managers that are found to be guilty of it. For example, a female colleague of mine recently had course to complain about a male colleague making her job unesscarliy difficult (more people than her had the same problem, men too). When she spoke to the superior (older male) she was told, “Why don’t you use your feminine charms to get around him”…With not a single exception, the younger male staff were appalled at this, more so than many of the women. That she didn’t feel, with that response and support, that she could take it further is the real issue here. Perhaps tackling this kind of thing would really change the lot of women in high tech jobs and hence interest, study, recruitment and retention would increase. What I don’t think works are focus groups having women only recruiting drives and women only training courses – those situations are just as discriminatory and create resentment.

    And just for the record, as a man working in the physical sciences, I would welcome with open arms a more diverse environment for more institutions and companies. The difference in approaches to complex problems when both sexes combine efforts, is, undisputedly, very beneficial to the contribution to knowledge – in my experiences both sexes bring unique insight, but that’s the point, we aren’t the same. All I want is for my colleagues to be there on merit not because there was a quota related recruitment drive; surely none of the women here would want to be recruited under such circumstances?

  • Comment number 22.

    Geldie - I agree almost completely. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply that every man in the world thinks women should stay home and have babies, more that there seems to be a worrying trend in the opinion of general society that that's what women really want to be doing even when they say otherwise. That women who go against their 'innate nature' are somehow a bit freaky and wrong.

    I agree that things are much, much better these days than they were even a few decades ago (hearing my mother talk about working in the London in the 60s makes my skin crawl sometimes), and I agree that the true issue here is not just under-representation of women but general inequality of all people, whether by gender or race or whatever. I think I just fight more fiercely for the women's corner because a) the arguments are mine, so I can make them confidently and b) I think the balance of power to change these things does still sit predominantly with men at present. They are the ones mostly in charge, mostly able to, say, alter the focus of secondary school teaching to put subjects in a different light as regards gender. And so on.

    I do completely share your feeling that quotas or women-only activities are almost totally pointless. They make us all feel better about ourselves while exacerbating the problem by making men feel that they are being unfairly discriminated against (as indeed, in some ways, they are). But that doesn't mean I don't welcome blog posts like this that address the issue without calling for any such action. I think it is a reasonable assumption that there are more women in the world who would find sciences/computer programming/etc rewarding than there are currently women in those fields. So the question would be how to reach the correct ratio without being unfair to well-qualified men, or causing yet further resentment in other ways?

    I don't have an answer for everyone. But perhaps, the more it is talked about, the more likely it is that everyone will find the answer for themselves.

  • Comment number 23.

    "So the question would be how to reach the correct ratio without being unfair to well-qualified men, or causing yet further resentment in other ways?"

    I suppose the correct ratio is hard to define but I know what you mean. I think obviously, stories like this serve to some extent to begin to open this kind of thing up, so that’s a good start as you mention. It may perhaps be beneficial for the odd report or article to focus on the positives within these environments for women instead of the problems. All too often the most watchable or readable content (manufacturing consent?) is that which reinforces the negative views and ultimately results in young women with the feeling that nothing has changed and its not worth the bother. The message that there are still problems but its really getting better and women can certainly make a career in these traditional male roles that is both fulfilling and worth pursuing, would be good to see represented now and then.

    I suppose when female role models in the sciences do crop up not many people notice, for example, the Christmas lectures form the Royal Institution have often been given by eminent female scientists and in fact, the Royal Institution itself is lead by Baroness Greenfield.

    If there is a problem associated with the visibility of female role models and the perception of young women about the prospects in tech related industries, then perhaps outreach schemes from universities and business of successful female technology and science professionals would begin to address the problem of perception. In addition, schemes of this nature would have even more weight if both male and female professionals points of view were represented, such that not only the womens perception of the work place is put forward but also the perception of the men that work with you. In those circumstances you can imagine people not only perceiving a successful female in a traditionally male role but also that the men working along side you aren’t all that bad and both respect and value female colleagues.

    Ultimately, that is of course a drop in the ocean but if people wish to address the problem directly and change the lot of young people in this country, mentoring and outreach could have a part to play. However, I feel the bigger problem really comes with stereotyping and general societal perception. Just recently we see TV programs suggesting that a large proportion of girls wilfully desire to become glamour models – something I find mind boggling. We clearly have a problem if this is true and I suppose its a chicken and egg situation: Is this the result of the perceived difficulty of women to be taken seriously and succeed in the professional world or the seemingly better prospects seen as a result of the celebrity culture. Perhaps a bit of both but clearly the young people in the UK have a misaligned sense of both what is possible and the personal satisfaction that may come from making a real contribution to something.

    It might well be silly idealism but I feel changing the perception of the general public of science and technology and the people who work in it, would go a long way towards addressing this situation. Perhaps if we dropped stereotypes like geek and tomboy and viewed people crossing the traditional gender role barrier with a little more compassion, it might be easier to do it. A prime example would be the sort of treatment a man would receive in attempting to pursue work as a nanny or nursery worker. Additionally, if we fostered a work environment where people actually support and stand up for each other, instead of everyone feeling besieged and watching there own back, then instances of bullying, sexism and discrimination might begin to be dealt with and become far less of a problem.

    I guess my overall point is I don’t profess to have all the answers but perception does seem to pervade this debate; mens perception of women in the work place, womens perception of how men view and treat them in the work place, societies perception of the challenges when crossing the traditional gender roles and the overall perception of the sciences and technology fields in the general public.

    What are the factors women feel are stopping young women in particular and how do you feel the issue could be addressed?

  • Comment number 24.

    "...please dont take it like i am biased towards gender but i have seen that in uni and in industry (generally speaking) women cannot do "Programming"..." Number 9.

    Who wants to be a code monkey?
    No offence to those who do code, but I am sure you will admit that "technology" does not equal "IT" and specifically "programming".

    There are a number of issues here that will never be fully resolved.

    Girls "aren't interested in technology", yes, when men start talking absolute rubbish about cars that they know so little about, they may turn off. The idea of sitting at a PC all day coding may turn some girls off. They are interested in it's effects however...

    Engineering and Science are male subjects. Yes, they have traditionally been so and we would be stupid to expect a u-turn to happen overnight. Science u-grad admins are reporting increased female numbers, fantastic! This should now spread into engineering and technology (which isn't wearing a boiler suit!!) but this is a minefield.
    Came across a teacher (ok, she overheard me tongue in cheek say the "those that can do..." oops.... I didn't know her what her profession was) and when asked I said I was in final year of a Masters of Engineering she suggested that it wasn't an academic subject!!!
    A Teacher! Imparting her small minded knowledge to her pupils!
    That isn't helping. What does the rare breed of women interested against all odds in Science do for a career? Flounder around like I did for ages, originally scorning the engineering and technology arena as donkey work, until it is adequately explained?

    The thing is, we 'admit' that women 'can' be good technologists. People say this sentence and think it is correct.

    Women aren't just 'able' to have the traditionally male traits, women have a role to play in technology which suits traditionally female traits also!!

    In this world of increasing complexity, it takes a person who can;
    a) see the bigger picture (most important)
    b) concentrate on a number of different tasks at once
    c) communicate effectively with people of different subject areas (ie ask for help!)
    d) read the instructions!! (or requirements - properly!)

    I'm not explaining this very well, but what I am suggesting is that women, cannot only do the job as well as men, but, quite possibly better! That they aren't just a good male substitute, but NEEDED on projects in their own right.

    So if we have established that women have a valuable role, but noted that it isn't portrayed as such in early life.

    I think that there is another serious area. That this country sees maths as something so difficult. How many times does someone say "oh, I can't do maths" when trying to work out how much a 10% off deal is worth? Can't divide by 10? My foot. Course you can, or you would not have made it past primary school education. Somehow, someone, made it acceptable to give up. And somehow, it is more acceptable for the women to give up sooner, to the extent that by the time they are 12 girls think they can't do it.

    Oh, it is such a minefield. One thing I will say - if you must have sexist girls into SET days (you should have everyone into SET days (should be mixed, 50/50, make it the norm not the exception), don't let a man run the darn thing and don't let same man take the screwdriver out of the girl's hand!!

  • Comment number 25.

    Great post!

    I would like to point to ONE area in ‘tech, where females are becoming a major force: and that's 'tech-related broadcasting!'

    For example:
    Kate Russell - 'Click' (various others)
    Natali Del Conte - Cnet's Loaded
    Cali Lewis - Geekbrief - iCali
    Veronica Belmont - Tekzilla (on the Rev3 network)
    Molly Wood - Cnet (various)
    I could list stacks more and I'm sure you could too.

    These are knowledgeable professionals who really know their stuff; their sex has nothing to do with it. Interestingly, you can also find each of the above as regular contributors to mainstream media – because their ability is what has made them successful.

    Even Susi Weaser from Shiny Shiny; ‘the girls guide to gadgets’ appears regularly on TV as a technology expert, not a technology expert for women.

    I know this is just one area of technology where females are starting to make real progress, but hopefully, their work will inspire others to get into the industry.

    Jim Connolly
    The Ideas Blog

  • Comment number 26.

    "Girls "aren't interested in technology", yes, when men start talking absolute rubbish about cars that they know so little about, they may turn off. The idea of sitting at a PC all day coding may turn some girls off. They are interested in it's effects however..."

    You see thats quite patronising in itself. When I mentioned women switching off with respect to physical sciences and tech, I wasn't, "talking absolute rubbish about cars"...thank you for that, it was a lovely example of the sort of comment that if spoken by a man, would be seen as sexist and dismissive. My point, infact, was when discussing real issues that will prfoundly affect our world and its understanding (the big picture) i.e. physics, maths, astronomy, chemistry, materials, engineering etc, many women simply aren't interested and that is my experience day to day, refute it if you like but that is my experience. Dicuss the same topics with men, more will at least have a passing interest - why is it so unacceptable to say that when its clearly a common thing?

    The point then, is clearly if proportionally less women are interested in the sciences and tech world, assuring 50% of science and tech employees are women seems rather unfair. Combat issues of sexism in the work place and have people purely employed on merit, not qouta or sex. That is, if anything else, the clearly logical and fair way.

  • Comment number 27.

    Ooh, I'm enjoying this discussion now.

    Geldie - it is the fundamentally chicken/egg nature of this whole thing that makes it so difficult to solve. And yet things do change, perceptions do alter over time.

    I think, in the state we are now in, we ought not to treat women in the sciences as a special case any more. We should not aim to surprise people with a female role model in an unexpected area, more to treat it as an obvious fact that the leader in any field may be either gender.

    In that light, I believe that any sort of 'outreach' programme should be carefully structured to show the world as it really is. Inviting one woman 'role model' along to a school may inspire a few young girls, but is unlikely to involve the boys in the audience beyond a few obligatory jokes about her mannishness (whereupon the girls can feel ashamed of their ambition and go back to worrying about whether their hair looks good today). Perhaps if both a male and female leader in a science field came along to talk, and clearly respected each other and ignored the traditional gender roles in their working relationship, it would make more of an impact as the audience realised that the narrow school view of how the world should work need not be true, and that role models of both genders understand that.

    I'm not sure, but I feel that's the way that societal change in perceptions is most likely to be achieved - appealing to the inner justice in everyone that respects true worth and capability in everyone when it is shown with no condescending 'message' attached.

    Helengelic - yes, perceptions of maths as difficult are another issue I can get very passionate about. A society where it is 'cool' for children or women to be ignorant of basic maths or reading ability on such a level is one I almost feel a tendency to disown. No, it is not alright to expect to depend on parents or a husband to support you forever.

    Personally, though, I must admit I rather delight in being a female geek - as an engineer who reads fantasy books, watches sci-fi tv and has 'internet friends' I tick practically every box. But it's only fun because by point out to people how I fit one or other of their stereotypes, I hope I am showing them that the stereotype isn't correct, because I am not how they would expect such a person to be. I hope.

  • Comment number 28.

    Skittledog - I agree, I think if role models were to be made higher profile in out reach at unis and schools what you suggest is the way it should be done. Its the best way to give across the idea of a successful, equal and productive working environment.

    On the subject of maths and the "hard" subjects, I agree with you both. There seems this disconnect with being able to do it. Maths is mentioned and the brain stops functioning at the total mental block of, "I can't possibly do this". I think its a failing of the school system to present kids information and harder subjects in a way that makes sense to them. Giving kids a text book and teaching it parrot fashion is no good at all. If you know what interests the kids you can pitch hard subjects on their terms, I feel. It was by those means I learnt maths, I was taught it as a tool of science, which I was interested in.

    Its true that in some instances terms such as geek aren't too negative to bare (in my opinion everyone is a geek about something and can bore the hell out of someone with thier particular geekdom). From my example though, the worry is when you have the more negative situations as suggested in child care for men for example. There are some very worrying attitudes and terms bandied about in that particular example.

    "I'm not sure, but I feel that's the way that societal change in perceptions is most likely to be achieved - appealing to the inner justice in everyone that respects true worth and capability in everyone when it is shown with no condescending 'message' attached."

    100% agree and it feels, if you look around at the more forward looking organisations that promote that enviroment, they are doing very well. Hopefully, the old boy network is slowly but surely being eroded.

  • Comment number 29.

    I'm involved in STEM recruitment (in a technology based role) at a well respected University. Currently, about 34% of our faculties students are female. For engineering subjects this drops to 20%. However, across science subjects, which include biology, maths, computing and chemistry this jumps to 46% which is a pretty equal split.

    In general, I don't believe males are given more opportunities to get into STEM subjects, simply, more CHOOSE to.

    I certainly don't remember being given any preferential treatment when at school and I left there twelve years ago.

  • Comment number 30.

    Oh, I don't think it's a case of preferential treatment - or at least I hope not. I would say that it's far more to do with society's opinions and expectations shaping young people's preferences and decisions.

    If a boy says to his parents or friends that he wants to be an engineer, I expect the response will usually be general approval. If a girl does, I expect the average response to be more along the lines of '...huh. Why?' When you're 15, that kind of tacit discouragement can do a lot to make you choose another path. It's also cultural because boys are brought up to join in the DIY/car maintenance/motorbike enthusiasm/etc with their fathers, while girls are left to go clothes shopping with their mother and eventually leave home without knowing how to check the oil level in their car engine (no kidding, a physics graduate friend of mine had to ask me how to do this).

    That is why I am a little wary, Geldie, of following the argument lines of 'women have no interest in sciences, men know enough to be worth talking to.' I suspect, at the end of the day, there probably is a slight discrepancy between the sexes in ability to understand/interest in science, spatial problems, logical thought and so on. But I think it is less of a difference than would appear from general attitudes precisely because of the cultural factors. Boys get taught by society that clothes and babies are boring, and girls get taught that cars and black holes are boring. I wouldn't for one second dispute that there are millions of women out there who can't see the interest in understanding the world, or cars, or coding the human genome, or (heaven forbid, that terrifying phrase) quantum physics. But I'm equally sure that for at least some of those women, that has come about because no-one has ever shown them the interest in it. I personally don't see the interest in make-up, hair, gossip or talking about byos all evening, and they think I'm equally stupid in return. People are all different. But I don't think the gender division has as strong an influence on those differences as the way we have set up our culture would imply.

    And that's all I want - for that imbalance to disappear. I don't know what the 'correct' ratios are, and I'd be wary of setting any such target. But if we want a society that does its best to find the potential in everyone and maximise it, we have to stop assuming that we can judge people's mental abilities on the basis of their genitalia. Because there is quite enough evidence that that is simply rubbish.

  • Comment number 31.

    "That is why I am a little wary, Geldie, of following the argument lines of 'women have no interest in sciences, men know enough to be worth talking to.'

    I'm not exactly sure how what I said became, "only men are worth talking to". Things like that are incredibly exasperating when you try and honestly discuss this type of issue. I said, in my day to day life, when discussing science and tech subjects with non scientists, that more men have a passing interest (not knowledge) than women - simply observation, no bias, no agenda. I passed no judgement of either men or women in this observation. I said nothing at all about ability to comprehend, because, there is no difference in ability, there are just people, some smart, some not and everyone else in between. If I said fewer men watched sex in the city than top gear, is that sexist? I’m sure I will now be told how many men do.

    In fact, I’m more likely to watch shows aimed at women, I cook in my household, while my partner understands the TV/sky box completely and I don’t, she prefers action and comedy movies, I prefer more emotionally involved films, drama and documentaries. In my daily life traditional gender roles are frequently reversed but that doesn’t stop the overall trends, which are really occurring out there. I would love for more women to be interested in science and feel it is something they can actively pursue, show interest in and contribute to. It’s something I know a lot about and am passionate about, so engaging more women would be great. I agree the problem may very well be down to social conditioning and I have openly discussed here a desire to see this change, but I’m not saying, “Women aren’t interested so I have given up talking to them”. Please don’t jump to the conclusion that noticing a trend means I am dismissive or looking down on women – that is simply not the case.

    "I suspect, at the end of the day, there probably is a slight discrepancy between the sexes in ability to understand/interest in science, spatial problems, logical thought and so on"

    I don't believe there is a "slight discrepancy" in ability to understand at all. I think the apporach of the sexes is different and sometimes a certain problem may appeal to or be easier for a certain person, I don't think sex is as important as all the, "women think like this, men think like that" studies will have you believe - I think people are different. Interest however, I agree, there is a problem and I believe its perception of science and sterotyping that are the problem. Kids need to see science and tech as interesting, rewarding and a valuable contribution to society, not as a boring existence studying things that don't matter, perpetuated by "geeks".

    Perhaps the media should stop pumping footballers and glamour models at them. Perhaps TV shows that celebrate materialism should be frowned upon. Sadly, I worry we are too far gone as there is simply too much money to be made from all those negative things. Why should any kid want to be a scientist if you can show your body and get rich or spend all day playing sport and do the same.

  • Comment number 32.

    Yeah - but then, there are people who will find the most satisfaction out of a physical challenge, not a mental one. I don't have a problem with sports or fashion, but it worries me how they become the model that the rest of the world is supposed to follow to be accepted. Physical superiority has always been an evolutionary factor for both genders, but as we are intelligent enough to realise that physical superiority is not what we actually need most now, as a species, we ought to be able to change our values to reflect that, surely? Indeed, from the first day that a caveman picked up a stick and hit something with it, we proved that intellect (and opposable thumbs) can give us advantage far more quickly and easily than pure physical strength or beauty can. But in a couple of million years, we haven't learned to find intelligence sexy yet...

    And again, apologies for over-simplifying and implying you said something you didn't: I was just trying to address the general point, and to explain why I feel wary of any argument based on the current status quo (which is how I had interpreted what you were saying). I do however feel that there is a link of sorts between knowledge and interest - if you don't have even a basic knowledge of a subject, you cannot possibly find it interesting. And so, personally, I would address the lack of knowledge first and then hope that people can find the interest themselves. Rather than trying to teach 'interesting,' which is an impossible task.

    One thing that gives me a little bit of hope, in an odd way, is that the internet (and especially search/wikipedia) are beginning to make it accepted that, when you don't know the answer to something, you go and look it up. It may be used mostly for trivial purposes, but it still marks a slight shift of culture where it is no longer considered cool to remain ignorant when knowledge is at your fingertips. I like that.

    I have, however, gone slightly off-topic here. Ultimately, there will always be people who find science/tech interesting and exciting, and there will always be those who don't. The key is to aim for a state where that division occurs purely by personal preference, and not through arbitrary divisions of genders, races, religions or social class, for the benefit of both the individuals involved and the successful future of science.

  • Comment number 33.

    I agree with much of that but the issue is the status quo within the sciences and tech industries now. If you address a perceived bigger picture, assuming there is societal change and men and women become equally interested and motivated in science and technology, then you are addressing a predicted future. Surely you can only address the status quo and adjust accordingly. If science teaches us anything its that it is far better to intelligently approach a solution with learned adjustments and modifications, than to charge ahead with the probable future picture, or picture if social conditioning didn't exist and get a result that just causes more problems than it fixes.

    I think you may very well be right about with respect to the proliferation of affordable high technology in our everyday lives and the availability of information. It can only lead to positive views of science and tech and with hope and a bit of luck lead to a bright future. Of course, then the problem comes that the net is just another means by which to bombard the same sort of media at kids. As great as things like wiki are, a quick look at the most viewed articles list does make for a dose of despair sometimes. I personally think the video blog side of youtube (when not being censored) and things like it, are a nice way of working on things like stereotyping and prejudice – what better way to dispel misconception than sit and listen to an opinion you may not very often come into contact with?

    As for the issue of misunderstanding, I apologise for being a little aggressive there. Discussing some of these issues from a blokes point of view can be a bit of a mine field, so misinterpretation can totally discredit what is said, due to the suggestion of sexism. So I feel its important to address such misunderstandings.

  • Comment number 34.

    I've been working in IT and related fields since 1981. I'm about to retire as I'm in my mid-60s and I'm sick to death of walking into stores like PC World and being treated like I'm a dimwit and called 'Dear' by kids decades younger than me. Who do you think TAUGHT the generations now so proud of their IT skills?

  • Comment number 35.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 36.

    I have some very close female friends that are engineers, researchers, programmers, etc. To a certain degree it is true that women are not as geeky as we are, but the systematic approach of the female brain to everyday tasks means that they are more naturally gifted towards programming and problem solving than men are. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more passionate about a certain subject to an extend that we lose touch with reality and become geeks.

    PS: I believe Rory had a blog on the same subject some time ago?

  • Comment number 37.

    A recent article written by Jonathan Lee Recruitment, who specialise in engineering jobs, outlined the fact that only 3.5% of registered engineers in the UK are female (from a study by the Council of Engineering UK.

    The article goes on to examine why engineering is not seen as a career path of choice to women stereotypes, inflexible working practises, lack of careers advice), and why this is a problem to British indsutry.

    The full article can be found at

  • Comment number 38.

    I have to say, while this is very true and I hear about it all the time, as a female computer science major still at university, I am a white, suburban, upper-middle class female and for the first time in my life I am a minority.


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