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Posts Tagged ‘women’

Sigh.  I’m sorry, I don’t actually want to be a cynic and suspect scams everywhere, but I think last Thursday’s “Courage Night” may have been one.  Ostensibly, the event was about gathering money and attention for the fight against breast cancer; however, I have serious reservations about the tenor of the event.

Key guests were Berny Dohrmann and Susie Carder, best known (and actually not that widely) for writing about, and pushing, “The Secret”.  The central tenet of this pseudo self-help book and the movement it generated is that “positive thinking” is all it takes to change your life, to ward off the bad things and instead receive wealth, health, and happiness.

While it seems fair to say that, all else being equal, strong morale is usually beneficial and helps sustain one through challenges, this is not sufficient.  I really hate philosophies that ultimately place the blame for ill fortune on the victim: if you are not wealthy, healthy, and happy, it must be because you don’t want it badly enough, right?  Big comfort and help for someone who, after a goodly dose of The Secret, or certain New Agey versions of the concept of karma, or firm belief  in the power of prayer alone, is still wrestling with cancer, unemployment, or depression.

I’m very, very fortunate, and I have always been.  Sure, there have been times of sadness and struggle, but in the end I’ve had a wonderful family, husband, and friends, good health, a career I love, and many other interests to keep me in love with life.  However, I am acutely conscious that all of this is a result of great luck.

I also know, and we all do, much worthier people with fantastic attitudes who have suffered the outrageous slings and arrow of fortune, who can’t seem to get an even break, and who die early of disease or accident.  I do not believe that lack of a positive attitude explains that.

Let’s face it: sickness, ruptures, and reversals of fortune happen because ours is a stochastic universe — in other words, shit happens.  Not because you’re a bad person or because you had a negative attitude, but because it’s random bad stuff.

The way to act against this is to develop compassion for one another, to install social and personal safety nets, to help one another, to fund research into medicine and beneficial technologies, to pick ourselves up and try again.  Magical thinking, the idea that if we wish hard enough everything will be all right, is not only silly, it’s downright dangerous and callous.

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ada byron lovelace

So here we are — today bloggers are celebrating the heritage of Ada Byron Lovelace and other “techie” women in science, technology, engineering, and medicine. I picked women I admire and whose excellence inspired me through the years.

Marie Curie

Maria Skłodowska Curie, the Polish-born physicist and chemist who pioneered research in radioactivity with her French husband Pierre Curie, was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the first person of either gender to win two Nobel Prizes (Physics, 1903, with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and Chemistry, 1911, by herself). She won many other honours for her work and is an icon of women’s excellence in science.

Her sister Bronisława was a doctor, her elder daughter Irene would become a Nobel-prize winning chemist herself, and her younger daughter Eve a famous writer, publisher, and top NATO and UNICEF staff.

Thea Foss

Theah Christiansen Foss was a Norwegian immigrant to the United States who would go on to found the Foss Launch and Tug Company — now Foss Maritime, the largest tugboat company in the western U.S. The company’s official colours are still the same white with green trim Thea Foss used to paint her first rowboat. From rowboats she graduated to shipyards. The Thea Foss Waterway in Commencement Bay, Tacoma, is named for her.

Eleanor Helin

Pioneer asteroid researcher Eleanor F. Helin passed away this winter. She worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) and discovered or co-discovered 872 asteroids in her lifetime, as well as several comets. Asteroid 3267 Glo is named for her (“Glo” was Helin’s nickname). She did an amazing amount of work that rarely received the limelight but contributed enormously to our knowledge of the Solar system.

Rose-Aimée Lamontagne

Sister Rose-Aimée Lamontagne of the Sisters of Charity of Québec was my mathematics teacher in Secondary 3*. She was a wonderful woman, a free-thinker marching to her own beat, passionate about teaching and about science. She made fantastic efforts to help every student according to what he or she needed to get as far as possible in life, not just in terms of technical education but also in life skills and ethics. We remained close friends from 1978 to her death from cancer in 2002. She was a great person who taught by example, and passion, not just by words.

Danielle Zaikoff

Danielle Zaikoff is one of the pioneer women in Québec to obtain an engineering degree. She was the first woman (1970-75) to become a member of the Board of Directors of the Ordre des Ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ, Quebec Order of Professional Engineers), the self-governing professional licensing body in charge of regulate engineers and engineering in Québec. She was the first woman to then become president of OIQ (1975-76), then president of the Canadian Council of Engineers (1978); her career included many other firsts. Thanks to her example (and to my parents’ confidence in me), I never questioned whether a woman could be an engineer and excel.

Kathryn Foster

Kathryn was my co-worker for nine years when I was in Seattle. She is one of the best engineers I’ve ever met, and definitely the best field engineer I know, period. Although she had a background of broad interest in sciences, she was working as a house-cleaner until she decided to go back to school and earned her degree in civil engineering at age 40! She obtained her professional engineer license a few years later and proceeded to kick butt as a superb, eminently practical and sensible engineer. She also acted as the office IT manager for over a decade, reconfiguring servers on the fly.


* In Québec we have Elementary Grades 1-6, Secondary 1-5, CEGEP or junior college 1-2 or 1-3, then university; so this would be equivalent to Grade 9 in the U.S. Incidentally, I like this system better; it groups students by more similar ages and it lets them do the really stupid stuff and the floating before they hit university. Between a different organization and better funding for student loans and scholarships, 48% of Canadians have a college or university degree, compared to 39% of Americans. Among people less than 45 years old, the proportion of college or university degrees is higher among women than men (this is reversed for ages 55 and older.)

Links of interest:

Ada Lovelace Day sites:

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(Continuing the discussion of women in science and technology from Part 3 last week, and leading up to Ada Lovelace Day.)

What’s so great about it?

Today I want to talk about some of the reasons science and technology are particularly interesting for women, despite any obstacles.

Let’s face it: at any job that requires raw strength, on average women are going to be disadvantaged compared to men; we expect that when brute force is a necessary ability, there will be more men than women on the job. But there really aren’t that many jobs where that is much of an issue anymore because we human have created a lot of tools to make our lives easier and increase our productivity.

If there is one arena where women should be able to compete with men on even biological footing, it’s in mental pursuits and white collar jobs. The primary obstacles are cultural; we have plenty of evidence that show how malleable the human brain is and how the first few years of life and education shape us. Children in general are bundles of possibility and creativity; only through the mill of high school and adolescence are they ground into the dust of conformity and apathy.

By the time they hit the math and science classes, high school students have often become disaffected; and evidence shows that this is worse for young women, who receive a lot less encouragement than men toward science and technology.

How can we kill the fun out of science and technology? Science is discovery, understanding, the “Ah-ha!” of figuring out what makes things work, the intricate and amazing beauty of an interconnected world. Technology is the entertainment of toys for grown-ups, gadgets, gizmos, gear. How can we make all this boring?

It’s true that math and sciences are “hard” and require a lot of work. But look at the long term: is it not a great big lot of work to be a store clerk, to wait tables, to wash floors, to be the lowest paid employee in the office and have to take on a second or third job to make ends meet? At least as an engineer, a microbiologist, a software developer, a GIS analyst, or a toxicologist, you put extra work up-front in studying, but typically you can expect a career that is respected, physically undemanding, reasonably paid, and in growing demand.

You also have access to opportunities to continue to learn and grow, stay informed about the newest developments in your field, take additional training, tackle new responsibilities, and generally avoid becoming obsolete.

If that is the kind of thing that drives you (as it drives me), you can get a job where you can make a difference. Environmental and medical careers are two obvious avenues; research and development or teaching can also provide a lot of personal satisfaction.

The pay is usually also quite fair. No, you don’t pick science and technology in order to get rich quick; and no, the glass ceiling is not gone yet. But you can definitely expect middle class or upper middle class comfort, and be more “employable” than you be without a tech-oriented skill set. And you can help break the damn ceiling.

A career where you can have fun, excitement, personal satisfaction, reasonable pay, prestige and respect, where you can compete well, where you can make a difference or get your nurturing on if that floats your boat — what’s not to love?

Other posts in this series:

Links of interest:

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(Continuing from Part 2 of the discussion of women in science and technology from last week and leading up to Ada Lovelace Day.)

Boyz in our ‘hood

Today I want to talk about the way women who study, work, or play in the world of science and technology are often discouraged by men’s actions and attitudes.

While this in no way applies to a majority of men, there is a significant and vocal proportion of men in these fields that are complete bullies and delight in making it more difficult for women. There is also a pervasive tendency to convince one’s self that women are now equal in all ways and no longer suffer from discrimination.

Discrimination does exist. It takes many forms, some subtle and some not. The subtle form includes the constantly reinforced image of the successful male techno-mage, the scientist/engineer/hacker, juxtaposed with the omnipresent image of the sexually available and/or emotionally nurturing woman as accessory.

Think about it: a man who is a scientist, appearing in a news article, a movie, a commercial is “a scientist”; he’s considered neutral by default. A woman who is a scientist, appearing in a news article, a movie, a commercial is “a female scientist”. Boys and men are not expected to identify with the character, only women. But in reality, girls and women do not identify well with the male characters either; they simply make do by a sort of mental substitution. The lack of emphasis on female role models is precisely why Ada Lovelace Day was launched.

But overt discrimination is alive an dwell too. Some men — enough men — often make it a hassle to be a woman in tech fields. There are the high school and even college classes where boys aggressively intimidate “brainy” girls. There are the chat rooms, blogs, forums, instant messaging services and other online communities where using a female handle or avatar guarantees you will be at beast harassed with “M/F?” messages and at worst shouted out and threatened of physical violence if you are identified as feminist. There are the “booth babes”, the cheesecake pictures as an automatic accessory to tech, Wired Magazine’s Sexiest Geeks of 2008, etc.

There are the men who, in person, will simply ignore anything said by a woman even if she’s the smartest, best qualified person in the room — and online will turn into vicious, moronic tools. Their arguments are so old, easily rebutted, and flimsy, and yet so frequently repeated, that we can even play the anti-feminist bingo (now in two different versions!) Next time someone answers “Women just can’t be objective about gender issues” or “I got abused for opening a door for a lady”, you can just yell “Bingo!”

I was originally going to illustrate my discussion with lots of links to many online discussions where such men show abhorrent behaviour toward women because they are women. I have an impressive yet very sporadic collection of these links, but I decided there was no point in feeding the trolls.

What am I going on about, then? I’m saying that for a large number of women, science and technology careers and hobbies appear to offer more detractions than incentives: spend years in school being ridiculed or intimidated while taking harder classes, then fight your way elbow to elbow with bullies who are supposed to be your peers, while having the prospect of putting your career on hold when it’s time to have a family because odds are low their partners will be willing to. Then, after raising a family, try to compete again with skills now outdated in a field in constant change. It may be hard to see what would be worth this (that is my topic for next week).

I’m saying that there are a percentage of men who are @$$holes, a percentage of men who are wonderfully not @$$holes, and an amorphous mass of men in the middle who don’t really notice any of this and don’t really care since it’s “not their problem”. And I’m telling the latter that it is their problem, that they have mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, spouses who need them to move into the wonderful category instead and speak up against the @$$holes. And help your daughters find female role models, because they need them just as much as your boys need their role models — nay, more so.

Other posts in this series:

  • Part 1 (February 24): Hollywoodian portrayals
  • Part 2 (March 3): My techie friends
  • Part 3 (today): Boyz in our ‘hood
  • Part 4 (March 17): What’s so great about it?
  • Part 5 (March 24): Ada Lovelace Day — some role models

Links of interest:

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(Continuing the discussion started last week in Part 1 and leading up to Ada Lovelace Day.)

My techie friends

Naturally, being a woman first studying and later working in technology and science for the last three decades, with nerdly hobbies and geeky interests, I know a lot of women in technical fields of expertise.

Techie professions

These days, working in technology evokes, for the general public, either being a code developer for Google, Microsoft, or Blizzard; or the IT support people at their office. Science, well, that usually evokes a very general and nebulous super-expertise in everything, like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, Walter and Peter on Fringe, and pretty much anyone but Jack Carter on Eureka.

Therefore, let’s unpack the idea a bit and look at what all fits in the Science and Technology drawer: think chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, geology, mathematics, airline pilots…

Here are some of my female techie friends’ areas of expertise:

  • Marine, fisheries, wetlands, and plant biology
  • Genetics
  • Telecommunications
  • Information technology
  • Civil, electrical, environmental, and industrial engineering
  • Statistical analysis
  • Industrial safety
  • Chemistry

Sometimes, by virtue of environment and of being women they are assumed to be non-technical. Female IT professionals are sometimes assumed to be secretaries or assistants; some of my friends in big telcos are assumed to be phone operators. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if it’s reflected on the pay scale (i.e., the glass ceiling).

I’ve noticed over the years that the gender distribution is much more even in recently developed or emphasized fields like environmental sciences or biotechnology, and much more lopsided in “old” fields like geology or civil engineering. Life sciences (medicine and related fields) also seem to appeal to young women.

Geek hobbies

Geek women certainly don’t appear rare to me; but I know they can tend to be less “visible”, especially in related hobbies like online forums and game boards. Some don’t want to be associated with nerd pursuits outside work; some are knee-deep into online contacts with the geek community but under male or neutral pseudonyms and personae, or stick to hobbies they can practice with a closed circle like tech and science clubs, console or tabletop games, etc.; and many have a family that takes all their off-hours interests.

And if the tech hobby requires significant money (for computer equipment, gadgets, subscriptions, travel, etc.) and these geek women have a geek husband and especially kids, they tend to prioritize the hobby budget for their partner and family. So if anyone gets a new hard drive, a trip to a convention, or a new laptop, it’s less likely to be Ms. Techie.

Even more interestingly, I think among my circle at least, techie women have more varied interests than men — or share them more easily. The tech women I know tend to also enjoy art, crafts, music, martial arts, etc. and have at least one important creative and non-tech hobby. It’s spottier among the men I know.

Other posts in this series:

  • Part 1 (February 24): Hollywoodian portrayals
  • Part 2 (today): My techie friends
  • Part 3 (March 10): Boyz in our ‘hood
  • Part 4 (March 17): What’s so great about it?
  • Part 5 (March 24): Ada Lovelace Day — some role models

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A month from today, we will be celebrating Ada Lovelace Day, and as promised I am now starting a series of posts to discuss the perception (and my reality) of women in science and technology. These posts will run every Tuesday until March 24, so if you dislike the topic, skip this blog on Tuesdays for the next four weeks.

Here is my plan for the overview:

  • Part 1 (today): Hollywoodian portrayals
  • Part 2 (March 3): My techie friends
  • Part 3 (March 10): Boyz in our ‘hood
  • Part 4 (March 17): What’s so great about it?
  • Part 5 (March 24): Ada Lovelace Day — some role models

Hollywoodian portrayals

In general, Hollywood is woefully lagging in its portrayal of women. Yes, more and more the movie-makers will make the effort to include a prominent female character, but primarily as a love interest, mother figure, or deadly peril. Where the mindset shows most clearly is in the absence of women not only as protagonists outside the realm of romance and nurturing, but their absence as background characters. And of course women are particularly neglected in the portrayal of science and technology.

Now part of the issue is that Hollywood in general treats science and technology as pure magic. It’s pretty clear that for about 95% of movie and television writers, directors and producers, light bulbs and toasters are as magically activated as Excalibur and the Goose That Lay Golden Eggs.

Nevertheless, we haven’t advanced that much since Rocketship X-M, where Dr. Lisa van Horn (Osa Massen) is on board reportedly because she is a brilliant scientist, but then has all her technical contributions ignored and is dragged around strictly as a damsel in peril and romantic interest for the all-important male characters. I think of this as the essence of Hollywood’s treatment of techie women (in the words of Mystery Science Theatre 3,000: “Excuse me, the chauvinist detector is going off.”)

As a dedicated nerd, I’m always amazed that Hollywood’s tolerance for strong female portrayals, particularly in tech fields, is actually lower than that of an average 18-year-old undersocialized basement-dwelling male nerd.*

I’m not kidding. Nerds in general have no problem with characters like Molly Millions, a.k.a Sally Shears, the cybernetically enhanced woman who dominates William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic (dragging Johnny’s sorry ass throughout the story) and novels Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive. But what did Hollywood do with the character in the film version of Johnny Mnemonic? She is entirely replaced by a secondary, vulnerable, entirely forgettable female “romantic interest”, and Johnny’s character is boosted to be powerful and in control, something he was not in the short story.

Another example was the character of Mina Murray in the mediocre movie adaptation of the excellent steampunk graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, who went from dignified, self-controlled team leader (in the book) to second-string “slut vampire” supporting character in the movie. Good grief.

Let’s look at television: even a series like Eureka (and it amuses all my friends so much that I live in Eureka) tries hard to have primary techie female characters (Allison Blake, Zoe Carter) but ultimately fails. For one thing, all the female scientists have to be drop-dead gorgeous, while that’s clearly not a requirement for male characters. For another, a few female characters may appear on the center stage on occasion, but they are almost entirely absent among the background characters except when a mother, spouse or girlfriend is needed. It’s the “Ten men and a babe” syndrome.

In short, there is a serious lack of role models in common television and movie portrayals of women in science and technology. I would argue that the disparity between male and female characters in movie/TV science is greater than for movie cops, movie lawyers, etc.

Yes, there are more interesting female scientists and techies in film and television: Dana Scully in the X Files, at least in the early years of the show when the character was not so entrenched in the repetitive lines and was not a romantic interest; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, though one could argue that was perhaps an extension of the nurturing persona; perhaps even Temperance Brennan (Bones) or Kathryn and Sarah in CSI. But all but Dr. Quinn are actually either strongly dependant on a male counterpart (Bones) or actually supporting characters to a male lead (X Files, CSI).

There’s a long, long way to go before we get a decent choice of role models on that front.

Links of interest:


*Hey, I once was 18-year-old undersocialized basement-dwelling female nerd.

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Ada Byron Lovelace(From Boingboing.)

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Over 300 people have already signed a pledge to publish a blog post, video blog or podcast episode about a woman they admire on 24th March 2009. We need 700 more people for the pledge to be successful.

Recent research by psychologist Penelope Lockwood discovered that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones. But in the tech world women’s contributions often go unacknowledged and role models are hard to find. Ada Lovelace Day is a chance for us to sing the praises of the women who make tech tick: entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants… The list of tech-related careers is almost endless and we want to see examples from all of them!

Ada Byron Lovelace is recognized as the writer of the world’s first computer program, which remained theoretical since the machine she wrote for, Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, was not operational at the time. She was also the daughter of famous poet Lord Byron. She is widely popular in the geek community, especially after she was portrayed as a character in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine.

The project was launched by Suw Charman-Anderson on January 5. By the time of this post the pledges were up to over 800, getting close to the 1,000 target (though extras are always needed to cover for those who won’t be able to participate after all). I pledged, of course. So on March 24, expect a post here about techie women.

Fair warning: I will likely lead up to this event with rants about various Hollywoodian portrayals of women — or their absence — in science in technology. If you have trouble getting in touch with your inner feminist, skip reading on those days. 🙂

Links of interest:

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