Thursday, March 08, 2007

On the place of women in computery

Indulge me in a little thinking exercise please, dear Reader. It won't hurt, and will only take about five seconds, but it will be on the final exam so pay attention. I would like you to imagine "a computer user," visualize this person—or perhaps think about the computer users among your friends and colleagues and let them pass review before your mind's eye.

No hurry, take your time. (picks fingernails, looks out window, whistles tunelessly)

Done? Thank you; now read on.

I blathered recently about other bloggers' comments on the paucity of women at tech conferences, saying that the measure of discrimination is not how many women speak, but rather what proportion of applicants are turned down. Brooksba proposed extending this to include the entire candidate pool: If women make up 90% the users of a product but only 10% of applicants to speak about it, then there would seem to be a problem in the process of attracting (advertising to) possible conference speakers.

That started me think about the makeup of my particular candidate pool. I've mentioned before that almost all users of my database are women, at least 90%, and I was curious whether this figure was "reasonable" or heavily biased. So I did the obvious thing and posted a survey on a community website used by database developers. The results were fascinating (May will wince at this: drawing conclusions from an informal, uncontrolled poll of a small and self-selecting sample).
10% : almost all users are women
26% : three-quarters of users are women
32% : half are women
 5% : one-quarter are women
 6% : almost all users are men
21% : don't know
Sixty-eight percent of database developers said that at least half of their products' users are women (86% if we discard the don't knows); over a third said that women make up three-quarters or more of their users.

Other examples off the top of my head: Ageing Yuppie's students are 14:1 women; the CAD team from whose collective paw I removed a thorn on Tuesday was 7:2 women; B's architectural-design office is entirely women; B2's texters are entirely women.

It seems that a silent revolution has occurred: the boys' toys have become the women's tools.

I find that absolutely staggering, and quite wonderful. However, taken in the context of tech conferences and my programmers' conference in particular, it might only mean that the men are in the positions of authority—developer, IT specialist, consultant, CTO—people who make systems rather than using them.

And now, the final (self-)exam: What was the gender of the computer user you imagined; or if you reviewed your circle of acquaintance, what proportion of them were women?



Blogger zhoen said...

Mostly women users, and most of the IT guys are men.

March 8, 2007 at 10:53:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Late Edition said...

women, no question ... that's basically because I happen to work in a place where the competence in IT matters is strangely split along gender lines ... and the women are the competent ones ... weird

March 9, 2007 at 4:04:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger May said...

You got the point when you wrote: "men are in the positions of authority—developer...who make systems rather than using them". It is not just the subdivision of roles that is striking (no surprise) but the fact that men place themselves in the position of leaders. It's been like that for thousands years, it cannot change in a decade.

As regards the sample, if there is no bias involved in the self-selection, there isn't really a problem.

March 10, 2007 at 11:21:00 a.m. GMT+1  

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