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Breaking the Silicon Ceiling: Empowering women with technology

Breaking the Silicon Ceiling

On Saturday, Lucy-Jane presented at the 3rd Annual FemSoc Feminist Conference on Digital Humanities and empowering women with technology. The talk was well attended but we thought we would share it here for others.

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Despite early involvement in the development of computers, women have largely been absent from the field of Computer Science for decades. This is something that most people are aware of, but I thought I would share some statistics to show just how large this gap is. If we look at education statistics from the U.S. there is a rapid decline in Computer Science degrees awarded to women since the mid 1980s, despite a steady increase in Mathematics, Engineering, and Physics degrees and an increase in percentage of degrees awarded to women as a whole.

It is quite hard to find statistics about Computer Science in NZ, but using data from Education Counts I was able to work out that women earned just 32% of Computer Science qualifications at all levels in 2006 (Data gathered from Provider-based Enrolments: Predominant Field of Study.xlsx). Another website I read claimed that this figure is closer to 20%, though it did not cite a source for this statistic (absoluteIt (2015), Is NZ’s gender gap in tech as bad as we think?).

Breaking the Silicon Ceiling (2) Statistics from 2001 and 2006 show that in New Zealand women hold just 25-26% of ‘professional’ computing roles and 29-37% of ‘technical’ computing roles. Because women are more likely to work in these technical roles, they also likely to make less money than men, with professional roles earning $45 – 48,000 compared with $30 – 37,000 for technical roles (Hunter, A (2012), Locating women in the New Zealand computing industry)
Breaking the Silicon Ceiling (3) With increasing need for technological skills in the workforce, there are obvious employment advantages to working in the IT industry, but the importance of gender diversity in computer science goes beyond employment. As technology becomes more integral in how we interact with each other and live our lives, it is important that technological developments meet the diverse range of needs that are present in society. If women are not part of the development of technology, it is likely that technological products will not meet their needs. Furthermore, as technology continues to wield influence over people and to shape culture and society, the power that comes from developing technology will remain in the hands of men, reinforcing the current system.
Breaking the Silicon Ceiling (4) There is much debate about what exactly it is that prevents women from studying Computer Science or working in IT. Issues that people cite include: the lack of computer science related toys for girls; the geek factor present in high school which seems to affect girls more than boys; and the absence of female role-models for girls in Computer Science. I have personally found taking Computer Science courses daunting as they often involve walking into rooms full of people that don’t seem to look or act like me (especially since I like to wear heels and glittery dresses). It becomes very hard to ask for help or guidance when you feel that you need to prove you have a right to be there in the first place and it can be very hard to make friends when you see yourself as an outsider.
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Increasingly, education providers and IT companies are attempting to encourage more women to enter the IT industry. Google, for example, has poured $50 million dollars into the Made with Code programme which provides mentors, tools, and resources for girls in high school to learn to code . They also created the Anita Borg Scholarship which provides funding and opportunities for women to study Computer Science.

IT companies have also begun to change their practices in order to become more welcoming to women. Again, another Google example, but they have done a lot of work to examine the kinds of unconscious biases that exist in their teams and products and have offered workshops to their staff in order to educate them about bias and how it can affect the decisions they make.

These are wonderful initiatives but they tend to target the next generation of women, ignoring women who are currently outside of the tech industry who could still be empowered by technology.

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My own journey into coding is reflective of the statistics I mentioned earlier in this talk. Despite being surrounded by computers from an early age, and having a father and brother with an avid interest in computing, I managed to pass through both primary school and high school without ever studying computing. At university, I studied Arts, with a particular focus on English, while my brother undertook a degree in Computing Engineering.

It wasn’t until I picked up a Digital Humanities paper in my third year that I discovered a passion for technology. I began by learning the TEI, a set of guidelines for how to create electronic scholarly texts. As part of the course, I scanned and transcribed letters from a Cantabrian soldier in Gallipoli, and then worked with my classmates to mark them up with the TEI (You can visit the website for the project here:

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Due to my experience in my Digital Humanities course, I landed a job at CEISMIC when I graduated with my honours degree. Some of you may have heard of CEISMIC, but just in case, CEISMIC is the Digital Archive for the Canterbury earthquakes. Since 2012 we have been gathering social and cultural data about the quakes in an effort to provide a long-term resource for researchers and future generations to learn about the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. Today the archive has over 100,000 items from a range of different cultural heritage organisations around New Zealand, as well as from our own University repository of earthquake data.

When I started at CEISMIC my role was primarily focused on content gathering – approaching people around Canterbury to gather earthquake-related material, before describing it, organising it and adding it to the archive. But as time went on I began to be exposed to the more technical side of archiving. The admin tools we had available for the archive were never very good so I began to write queries which would pull data from the back-end of the system using documentation our IT people had given us.

Breaking the Silicon Ceiling

Encouraged by my manager, I started learning Python and Javascript through online tutorials so that I could help him with a web app that he had written. The app included several tools: a address search which searched through addresses in our system; a history page which outlined recent updates to the archive; and a map showing the spread of our content across Christchurch (all created by Christopher Thomson). Over the next year I added two more tools: a manifest creator and a manifest checker. These allowed us to automatically create and check the spreadsheets that we used to ingest material into the archive (which we call manifests), a task that was previously time-consuming and prone to errors.

I also worked with my colleague Jennifer Middendorf to create a simple photo-describing app which is now used by our volunteers to add captions to folders of photographs without having to use the complex and often confusing manifests (You can download a copy here). This app has been vastly improved by our two volunteers, Aidan Millow and Brad McNeur.

Last year, as part of the UC Staff Tertiary Study Assistance Scheme, I took my first Computer Science course in Relational Databases, and this year I am studying Artificial Intelligence as part of COSC 367. Studying these courses alongside my full-time job has been hard work but hugely rewarding.

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This year, my job has undergone a massive transition as our office has evolved from CEISMIC to the UC Arts Digital Lab (of which CEISMIC is a major project). This has partly been a move towards longevity as the Canterbury earthquakes are not obviously going to be relevant forever, but it also because of the expertise and knowledge that we have built in the office. Essentially the aims of the Digital Lab are to enable digital research in the College of Arts by pairing the digital expertise in the lab with the subject knowledge and research experience of UC Arts academics and students.

In my new role I have begun to collaborate with researchers on papers, to develop software and tools for student projects, and to supervise interns and summer scholars. With the number of new programming languages, tools, and research projects that I have taken up I have come to confidently call myself a Digital Humanist and to feel that if I ever wanted to, I could transition from Arts into an IT field.

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When I think about my journey to computing, I sometimes wonder if I would have been better off studying Computer Science, instead of undertaking the Humanities education that I did. But the truth is that there were things about English that I was drawn to that I don’t think Computer Science would have ever satisfied. This is where Digital Humanities comes into the picture.

I’ve thrown around the term Digital Humanities a few times now so I should probably explain what it is. Digital Humanities is a relatively new field of study in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is considered an interdisciplinary subject as it tends to work in collaboration with other subjects, almost like an umbrella over the Arts. Digital Humanists use computational methods to answer existing Humanities questions and to pioneer new approaches in social and cultural research. The goal of Digital Humanities is to realise the possibilities that technology poses for the arts and to fully integrate technology into the activities of humanities researchers.

Breaking the Silicon Ceiling (10) As an intersection between Arts and technology, I think that Digital Humanities is well suited to women. I feel that women gravitate towards things that allow them to communicate and connect with the world which is why so many women study the Arts. With Digital Humanities, technology is seen as more of a tool than the focus of our study. We are interested in culture, people, and society, and use technology to investigate these interests.
Breaking the Silicon Ceiling (11) Furthermore, Digital Humanities has a hacking culture. This does not mean we like to take down banking systems, but more that we are happy to use tools or practices we are familiar with or have access to. Generally Digital Humanities have come from Humanities and Social Science background and have cobbled together digital skills from online tutorials or osmosis. This makes it more accessible to people who don’t have backgrounds in IT but who may want to learn.
Breaking the Silicon Ceiling (12) And lastly, because DH is still a relatively new field there is still plenty of room for different kinds of people with new and interesting ideas. The University of Canterbury’s Digital Humanities teaching programme, for example, has only been around for three or four years and it is the first of its kind in New Zealand. Similarly, the UC Arts Digital Lab is breaking new territory in New Zealand and we are doing it not as trained IT professionals, but as people with a passion for technology and a willingness to learn.
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I am proud to say that our office is made up primarily of women and that most of our interns and students are women too. Because we have nearly all come from Humanities and Social Science backgrounds, there is a vibe of collaboration and support in the office – we do not expect those who enter to know much about computers but hope to share our expertise and knowledge so they know a little more when they leave.

Almost unintentionally, I feel that we have created a female friendly space on campus to learn about, develop, and experiment with technology. I hope we can continue to diversify the kinds of people we have in the office so that it can be a hub for other underrepresented voices in Computer Science too.