IT Takes a Woman

IT Takes a Woman

Almost half of all IT job openings will go begging this year. At the same time, women are leaving the IT ranks at twice the rate of men. How can we stop this madness?

Designed by blokes, built by computer, shunned by the girls . . .

Have you heard about the newly designed voice recognition-based videoconferencing system that was inadvertently calibrated only for male voices? The camera, designed to focus on the person speaking, could not "hear" the women's voices and so ignored them.

Ridiculous, right? Well at least the perpetrators of that little "cock-up" - using the word advisedly - only caused loss of money, not lives. That cannot be said of the predominantly male engineers who tested the first generation of automotive airbags only on the average 176cm male driver. Who knows for sure how many women and children died as a result of that stunning display of male-centricity, but die they did. Ditto for the artificial heart valves sized exclusively to the male heart. And let's not forget the aspirin a day theory. Tested on 20,000 males and not a single woman, it has since been documented to have led to significant harm to some members of the fairer sex.

Which goes to show that bad things happen when men do all the planning, development and designing in this world - as indeed, they pretty much do. The book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, puts it starkly: modern workplace systems are built around male cultural models, entertainment software fulfils primarily male desires, and there has long been a tacit understanding that working in computer science involves giving up a balanced life.

Small wonder that even after years of effort in addressing the gender gap, many women still see the digital revolution mainly as being about toys for the boys. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, a shockingly poor 1 percent of women today feel technology designers take notice of their needs and interests, even though women influence or control 75 percent of consumable technology purchases. That is hardly surprising, when the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that just 16 percent of all people and only 5.7 percent of managers working in the hi-tech sector are women.

This state of affairs is not just detrimental to women, as the authors of Unlocking the Clubhouse make clear: in excluding women, the computer culture is denying itself a healthy and vital source of contributions.

Annemieke Craig, a senior lecturer at Deakin University's School of Information Systems, dedicates most of her time to devising intervention strategies to encourage girls to think and work positively with computers. She argues it is vital to bring diversity into the development and design arena for technology since women inevitably bring with them different life experiences as well as different skills. And it matters, she says, with numerous examples from science and engineering demonstrating what happens when development groups are not representative of users.

"Without diversity in boardrooms, technology companies may also create products which they think women want: mirrors on mobile phones or lipstick memory sticks," Craig says. "There is a fine line between making appealing technologies and patronizing an audience with products that do very little."

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