New Technologies & Gender Issues
Focus Group Topic 2: October 2-9, 1996

This topic was presented by Charles. For our discussion, we read two articles from "Resisting the Virtual Life: the Culture & Politics of Information" edited by James Brook & Ian A. Boal. Our discussion covered a lot of issues related to gender, the Net and the Information Technology Field/Industry. For the ease of reading, the discussion points have been split into two categories: those specific to the articles and more general ones.

Discussion Points Specific to the Articles

"Women & Children First: Gender & the Settling of the Electronic Frontier" by Laura Miller

"Out of Time: Reflections on the Programming Life" by Ellen Ullman.

General Discussion Points

Exclusionary Atmosphere of Information Technology

This part of the discussion involved a brainstorm about the reasons why IT as a field/discipline is dominated by men. Examining the interplay of gender and technology, some of the group members who study computer science shared their experiences of Berkeley's Computer Science Department and other group members shared their personal, gendered experiences of technology. Some of the reasons offered for the exclusion of women: lack of female role models in the field, women were intimidated at an early age, people hire the people with whom they study or work, the boy/geek club atmosphere.

We discussed an article in which (this is paraphrased) Bill Gates affirms Microsoft's attempt to bring its work force to gender parity (50/50) in order to ensure that the potential female user market is reached. We discussed this assumption that in order to make applications that appeal to women, women need to design them. We talked about bringing assumptions of offline gender identity to the online/multimedia world, spring boarding off of Laura Miller's comment about the often times artificial nature of the division of the sexes.

Movement to Legislate the Net & Women

This topic was raised by Laura Miller's discussion of regulating the Net. There was group consensus that there would always be attempts to regulate and control the flow of information and that it seemed that the idea of protecting women online against occurrences like online sexual harassment could be seen as a tool for censorship rather than as a measure of concern for women. We brought up Laura Miller's additional point that in the frontier context, women did not bring civilization to the West, rather the corporations and the capitalists did, which is being repeated on electronic frontier of the Net as well.

Elitism of the Computer Industry/Information Controllers

This part of the discussion was inspired by Ellen Ullman's piece which recounts her experience as a software programmer in a male environment. We discussed, with much input from the computer science students, the caricature of the computer science student being visibly weird, nonconforming and disparaging towards non-computer science people. We also discussed the degree to which the weirdness appears to counter the geek stereotype and it was noted that there is no "good" model for tech people.

We also discussed how even within the field of computer science, for instance at Berkeley, women are concentrated in the graphics or 3D graphics subfield, which is as technically challenging as and perhaps more tangibly rewarding than other types of programming.

We also discussed briefly the trend to keep information within privileged circles, the notion that people are less willing to share powerful information and that the computer science degree is said to be obsolete after nine years if one does not take active measures to keep current.