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Sex Changes and Women in Computer Science

2009 January 23
by Natasha

I’m a senior at Bryn Mawr majoring in computer science and minoring in math. This is the second course in college that I’ve taken that’s been labeled as an English class, though I’ve taken one or two others that felt to me like English classes. Last semester I took the English/Film class Women and Cinema, so I suppose I’m on a roll with the relation of “division or sorting” and “skilled craft or medium” (ie Women/Gender and Cinema/Technology) as Anne defined the two words comprising the title for this course. From my vantage point as a Computer Science major, though, when I read the title my first thoughts on the class were that we’d be discussing the leaky pipeline of women in computer science. If you haven’t heard of that term, it’s an analogy for the lack of retention of women in the field (and science fields in general). Many women quit being interested in the subject for one reason or another and leave the major. In other words they seem to be seeping out of the pipeline that’s taking students to higher and higher levels of computer science education. One of the things I want to explore in this class is the leaky pipeline issue. Why are women leaving computer science? Why are fewer of them attracted to it than men in the first place? What is our cultural context for women working with technology? Like Guinevere said, why are men often the ones working with technology in the home space? In the work space?

Professor Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd college, a fascinating speaker and inspiring woman, visited Haverford college last year to talk about women’s involvement in the field of computer science (she herself has a PhD in both math and computer science). She described an experiment designed to give girls and boys the opportunity to use a computer at a center for learning (I don’t recall where). While the girls expressed interest in using the computer, the boys generally scrambled ahead to get access to it, leaving the girls to amuse themselves elsewhere. The foundation ended up setting up certain hours where only girls were allowed to use the computer, and in that context the girls enjoyed using it. I find it interesting that at a young age, girls are being pushed away – and accepting this push away – from technology. Why? What about girls or how girls are raised is leading to this push away? What is happening when kids are young and throughout their development? How can we give girls and women interest in the field? Should we be trying to give girls and women interest in the field? What do women have to offer to the field? How can they specifically give it a different spin?

On a different theme, the intersection of sex and the technology of sex changes raises interesting questions, too, as Rebecca discussed. How does technology make possible manifestations of people’s mental image of themselves in the physical world? How does this affect how transsexuals interact with the world? Or what about women with breast cancer who get their breasts removed – how does this change their interaction with the world and conception of self?

I expect and hope that in this class we will be exploring the relation and intersection between gender and technology in a number of different ways – ways that I have mentioned, that others in this forum have mentioned (for instance, gender online) and a lot that we haven’t. How can we relate these various intersections of gender and technology together? How does a person with a sex change have something to do with a girl fighting for her right to use the household computer?

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