Sunday, 19 July 2009

Finding Ada? Not at the Early Learning Centre, you won't

In January this year the writer and technophile Suw Charman-Anderson launched a campaign to raise the profile of women in the technology sector.

In light of the misogyny that seems to persist in certain corners of the tech world, Suw wanted to highlight excellent work being done by women in technology and to identify strong role models to inspire women who are already working in technology or who may want to work in the sector in the future.

Suw called the campaign 'Finding Ada' after Ada Lovelace, who worked alongside the Victorian computing pioneer Charles Babbage writing technical and marketing documentation - and the world's first programming code - for the world's first computers, Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine.

Finding Ada is a global campaign now, with its own special day, countless media articles and blog posts, and a multitude of events, debates and other activities dedicated to raising awareness of outstanding technological achievements and contributions made by women.

I must confess, though, that I'm in two minds about Finding Ada and other techno-feminist initiatives. I've worked in the technology industry for the past 13 years, and I've found it to be pretty well populated with strong, articulate, intelligent, confident and authoritative women, who would doubtlessly tell you that they don't need anyone to stand up for them. In the multinational software company that I used to work for, for example, there are very many women in very senior positions, including the company's president.

So I think there's a danger that running campaigns that aim to 'empower' women in tech may in fact achieve the opposite. Portraying these women as victims of misogyny may inadvertently create the impression that they are unable to stand up for themselves; that they need protecting from their male colleagues; that technology is an unpleasant and unwelcoming industry for women. And although I've met some reprehensibly misogynistic individuals in the course of my career, I can't honestly say that I've found the technology industry as a whole to be unwelcoming to women; quite the opposite.

But on the other hand, Suw is absolutely correct that technology has very, very few female role models. Even Ada Lovelace herself essentially played second fiddle to Charles Babbage (for my money, the 18th-century French scientist and mathematician Emilie du Chatelet is perhaps an even better role model in the proto-female-geek stakes).

There must be countless women out there who are creating wonderful things with technology every day, and there shouldn't have to be a concerted campaign to bring them to light. But somehow, despite the fact that they undoubtedly exist, and with honourable exceptions like Six Apart's Mena Trott, Blogger's Meg Hourihan and Flickr's Caterina Fake, those women by and large remain invisible.

It's all part of that same curious bias in society that would have us believe that there are no female bloggers, or no female science fiction fans. Some things are just assumed to be a male preserve, despite any and all evidence to the contrary.

All of which is a very long-winded way of getting to my point, which is that yesterday, my 10 month-old daughter was given a present of a toy laptop from the Early Learning Centre.

I was very happy about this, as I'm all for introducing her to technology as soon as possible. She's already fascinated with my laptop and my digital camera and my mobile phone and the TV remote controls, and so she should be. Knowing how these things work and how they can be used is critical to getting ahead in modern life, and I'm not going to let my nostalgia for the toys of my own childhood get in the way of her technological development.

But what struck me was the way the toy laptop was packaged. Call me naive, but in 2009, I honestly just don't expect to read something like this:

Dad's laptop is nowhere near as fun as this? In 2009, what possible reason can there be for singling out Dad as the parent who has a laptop? And as if that weren't enough, there's a photo on the back of the box of a little boy using the laptop, but that's the only photo - there's no picture of a little girl using it.

You may think I'm making a fuss about nothing here. After all, the manufacturers clearly intend for the toy laptop to be used by boys and girls: the blurb on the front is deliberately - and ungrammatically - non-gender-specific. 'Watch your baby's face glow when they see and hear the magical light and music show'.

And yet it's tiny things like this, tiny, barely perceptible ways in which women are somehow made invisible when it comes to technology, that build over time into an overwhelming societal assumption that women in technology simply don't exist.

And it's because of that assumption that they actively have to be found, through initiatives like Finding Ada. I wish it weren't the case, and I can't understand why it still *is* the case, but there you have it.

Sort it out, Early Learning Centre.

1 comment:

Valerie said...

As usual when you're speaking on these subjects, you seem to be voicing my own feelings in a far more eloquent way. As a woman in the IT field, I've stayed clear of groups like The Athena Network and IEEE Women for just some of the reasons you describe -- I work with an all-women team now; for 16 years I supervised a team of managers consisting of two black women, one black man, one Asian woman and one white man. (I'm a white woman.) All the women involved held their own and were leaders in our university campus' IT community. None of us needed special treatment, none of us would want to be considered 'trodden upon' or in need of protection or encouragement -- no more so than any of our male colleagues anyway. (And I can tell you that, as a supervisor, my male and female staff all needed a certain amount of encouragement, as does anyone in the process of growing their career.) I've loved IT and it's been very good to me.

But that doesn't leave any excuse for the kind of exclusivism you encounter on toys like the laptop. There's just no reason to do that.