Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rant: And we wonder why we have trouble getting chicks to do computer science?

I was talking to one of my supervisors a couple of days ago, and she was telling me how something as simple as a programming competition had turned a kid's life around. This kid is a teenager, very, very bright, and interested in computers. Here in good old kiwiland, tall poppies tend to get their heads cut off unless they are sportspeople or religious weirdos (or both), so this kid was having a pretty rugged time of it at school, especially because computers are his thing, because you know, computers are geeky. This kid was suicidal, until he did a programming competition and met other kids like himself -- coming out of the closet now means admitting you like computers, apparently. Nonetheless, this child is, in fact, a boy. Because more than 90% of the people who are interested in doing a degree in computing in New Zealand are boys, if our first year is anything to go by.

There are lots of reasons as to why this might be, including, but not limited to:
  • The lack of games on the computer that appeal to girls (with 'The Sims' and some of the new PlayStation titles things are changing, slowly)
  • Maths and computing teachers generally being male
  • A lack of visible female role models -- we hear about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but only rarely about Helen Greiner and Grace Hopper
  • The bad attitude of some male computing instructors and students toward their female students/colleagues.
I firmly believe, though, that advertising plays a role in all this. There are four companies in New Zealand who advertise internet provision on the television. One is run by a woman, but has lame ads with her looking dowdy and using a loaf of bread as an analogy (this service also has the least uptake, I might add). One uses no people at all, graphics only. These two advertise less than the other two, though, and are not as high profile.

The third company plays on a local cultural legend, where the North Island of New Zealand was fished up by a young man sitting in the canoe that is the South Island. In this advertisement, a young caucasian lad hauls New York, Paris and London from the sea on a length of rope, "harnessing technology". Would it have been so harmful to use an image of a young girl drawing her friends closer and tying the lines of communication? I guess so.

This ad is far from the most offensive to my geeky sensibilities, however. The local telecommunication giant advertises their ISP arm, "Xtra" with a team of stereotypical geeks called the xtra-ordinaries. These guys are a team of socially inept geeks that not only contribute to the suicidal tendencies of the young man mentioned above, but leave or role model or room for a young woman to see herself as part of the technology industry.

These guys are being promoted as the image of ocmputing by the major national carrier in the telecommunications industry. They magically appear in bedrooms at night, they drive around in a clapped out van, and they have nerdy names for each other. I'm fairly confident in my own person and in my choice of a career in computing, and these guys make me a little embarrassed to be associated with the profession. What hope do I have of doing the part of my job that is encouraging young women to take up a career in computing when this is the image they, their peers, and their parents see on TV every night?

As a partially publicly funded national carrier, I would hope that this doesn't last too long, and that Telecom is asked to at least make a hot-but-nerdy-girl xtra-ordinary too. We're short if IT professionals in this country, and having one girl xtra-ordinary could make life easier for everyone who might want to pursue a career in computing. No doubt, however, Telecom thinks that poking fun at geeks is inordinately clever, and the series of ads will continue for years.

1 comment:

Tim Barnett said...

On the topic of Female vs Male teachers/lecturers in the fields of Computing and Mathematical Sciences.

If it is the case that students are drawn in by the gender of the lecturer/teacher of a subject, then unfortunately we're in a negative spiral.
To get more women teaching these subjects we either need more women doing them in general (so that we have equal men and women), or we need nearly all the women in the field to be teaching it (rather than in the corporate sector).

The images given by the ads definitely don't help, but then ads are targetted. What group is most likely going to utilise broadband? the geeky male.
however the geeky male would probably be fairly interested if a bikini clad model was being used to advertise it. This would be degrading to women.
perhaps they're using the same theory that was used by a local alcohol retailer: you can trust a nerd (btw I've seen that guy at Hockey).