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Women are using more technology but creating less

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Ed Knight
WVoN co-editor

Although women are the main users of social networking, it seems that they will have increasingly little say in how it is made because of a drop in the numbers taking computer science degrees.

Facebook’s director of engineering Jocelyn Goldfein, puts this down to a lack of female role models in computer sciences.

“The reason there aren’t more women computer scientists is because there aren’t more women computer scientists,” she says.

While young men interested in computers are presented with famed industry-gods such as Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and inventor of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee, there are no commonly recognised equivalents for women.

Associating the woman programmer with the end-product is key to encouraging young women, Goldfein argues.

“If they realise that when I click on a photo and it pops up, that was made by a woman, think how powerful that would be.”

She has previously suggested three initiatives which enabled a small California college to increase its women computer science majors from 15% to 42% in less than five years.

This included tracking experienced students separately from beginners to reduce intimidation, taking women students to conferences where they could meet role models, and presenting them with research opportunities as soon as possible.

This is has had some success in the US, which has previously seen a decrease in women computer science graduates since the 1980s, despite a technology sector growing enormously in that time.

In the UK, however, the differing university system does not mean attracting students to computer science classes so they can select the subject as a ‘major’, as in the US, but  attracting young women earlier, in secondary school.

Statistics from UK exam body, AQA, show that between 2004 and 2009 the number of girls taking A-Level computing halved.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall of Southampton University claims this is fundamentally a cultural problem, with girls no longer perceiving computer science as an empowering subject.

“Girls have been further put off by dumbing down computing to IT literacy,” Hall says. “They think that if they study computing they are going to become secretaries.”

Just as the perceptions of women are an issue, so too are those of men. Cue the lawsuit by investment partner Ellen Pao for sexual harassment and gender discrimination claim against her employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, venture capitalist firm of choice to Silicon Valley.

If substantiated, this claim points to an old-time sexism within the technology and software industries, often lauded for their meritocracy.

Since the early 1990s these industries have come to entirely reshape the US and UK economies. Just how much women are involved remains to be seen.

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