Societal/cultural consciousness and change

XVII.1 January + February 2010
Page: 36
Digital Citation

FEATURESocial change

Natalie Quizon

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"How can a girl grow up to be a technician, engineer, or a scientist? Providing girls with the guidance and incentives to take skilled positions in science and technology is a major responsibility of educators and employers. How can teachers, human resource experts, government, universities, and women's organizations contribute to increasing career options for women?"
    —"Women In Science and Technology," a report on an MIT workshop, May 1973

More than 35 years ago, Laya Wiesner first came up with the idea of convening a workshop at MIT University on Women In Science and Technology (WIT). In her role as the wife of Jerome Wiesner, then the 13th president of MIT, she immersed herself in what she recognized was a critical educational issue. The subsequent report introduced the above questions, the guiding objectives of the WIT Workshop held at MIT in 1973, which focused on the challenging dearth of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM).

Indeed, in 2009, we are still grappling with these very same issues. Today only 11.8 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees are awarded to women [1]. The WIT Workshop highlights the prevalence of a top-down approach, coalescing governmental, institutional, and business resources to increase the numbers of women in STEM fields. However, much has happened in the intervening decades, most notably, the rate of technological innovation. Ironically, the role of technology itself in drawing women into the STEM fields often gets relegated to the background in this discussion.

Today we live in a world augmented by data, content, images, and conversations. From IM to texting, videoconferencing to email, and landlines to mobiles, we have an abundance of communication modes. This has unleashed a creative fervor evident everywhere we look. At no time in history have so many people had the ability to create, publish, and broadcast their work to so many others, to those they know intimately, those with whom they are virtually acquainted, and complete strangers they have yet to meet. Only recently has it begun to surface that women have been dominating the exploding world of content creation and cultural production. Startling statistics are emerging that highlight women's participation in social media, which includes blogs, microblogs, video sharing, and social networks.

Women, particularly older women are some of the fastest growing groups in some social networks, so much so that other media such as television are seeing attrition in viewership. A recent survey by Q Interactive from August 2009, with data from 1,000 women, shows that more than 45 percent of those surveyed spent less time watching TV due to spending more time on social networking sites. The survey also showed that 75 percent of the women were "more active" in social networking than they were the year before.

The surge in women's participation in content creation in the social media space is interesting not just for its cultural implications, but also for what it means from a professional perspective, especially when considering young girls and women. Statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life project also support the idea that young girls use social media. This may be the salvation from the maddening dearth of women in STEM fields. Engagement in social media itself might very well be generative not just of crucial mentoring and support, but also of the critical coding and programming skills young girls need in technical careers. A closer look at girls' communication choices reveals how they are drawn to social media.

back to top  Girl Talk

Statistics show that communication in all its aspects is the domain of girls, from in-person communication to cellphone use to instant messaging. Girls also outpace boys in journal writing, 49 percent to 20 percent [4]. Driven by a desire to communicate, girls think of social media as simply new tools for broadcasting and publishing.

In the social media space, "girls dominate the teen blogo-sphere and social networks—66 percent of girls have an SNS [social networking service] profile compared with 50 percent of boys, and 34 percent of girls (versus 20 percent of boys) keep an online journal or blog" [4]. The domination of girls in social media is represented across all ages in the youth segments.

The Pew study found that:

"Older teen girls are still far more likely to blog when compared with older boys (38 percent versus 18 percent), but younger girl bloggers have grown at such a fast clip that they are now outpacing even the older boys (32 percent of girls ages 12–14 blog versus 18 percent of boys ages 15–17)" [4].

Highly skilled in the art of weaving stories and fostering social connections, teenage girls have embraced the Internet and transferred these skills to social media at a time when the technology itself is going through radical changes, allowing content to be treated programmatically, shared as objects, and providing endless opportunity for self-expression. In this peer-based learning model, the exciting convergence of the social Web with open-source development has enabled an entire generation—GenY—of girls helping girls to make the leap from content creation to coding.

A notable example of this is the Alice Project ( at Carnegie Mellon University. Alice is an open-source, educational, object-oriented programming environment that teaches young kids how to create animations and tell stories. For example, Storytelling Alice was created to specifically focus on middle-school children, and girls in particular, motivating them to learn computer programming by creating short 3D animation movies [5].

* Programming Purpose

The momentum to program will only win more ground for girls and young women as they get older and transcend storytelling. While their initial exposure to technology might have been driven by the desire to play online games on mobile phones or computers, or to connect in a social way—be it Club Penguin, Webkinz, or Facebook—they increasingly see the potential for technology as a tool for change. The pervasiveness of technology in all aspects of our lives and society today is markedly different from 1973. An important shift has occurred, one in which technology goes beyond "socializing" to a focus on what Sue Rosser, in Female Friendly Science, calls "social context." According to Rosser, "insuring science and technology are considered in their social context...may be the most important change that can be made in science teaching for all people, both male and female" [6]. Rosser argues for a contextualization of technology that emphasizes its more purposeful, socially conscious potential to draw in more men and women to STEM fields.

Jane Margolis's later study (from 2001) of the gender gap in the computer sciences, "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing," echoes Rosser's findings. The conclusions from Margolis's interviews with 100 male and female computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, while now almost eight years old, a lifetime in technology years, are still noteworthy:

"For males, the attraction to computers comes early in life and appears to be magnetic. Males are more likely to be fascinated with the computer itself, find satisfaction in controlling and mastering a machine, and enjoy hacking for hacking's sake. Females' interest in computing is more likely to be one interest among several others. They are more likely to place a high value on the context of computing, the links between computers and other fields, and the contribution to society that computers can make. We refer to this orientation as 'computing for a purpose'.... Many women who decide against studying computer science, either before or after starting, do so after concluding that their interests in application, helping people, and being a 'people person' do not have a place in computer science." [7].

"Computing for a purpose" defines the Web today. There is no shortage of examples of social media promoting civic engagement, volunteerism, and sustainable practices [8]. As technology becomes a pervasive tool for getting things done, and both women and men engage with it equally, one can begin to imagine that women and young girls will be less alienated by technology.

Research conducted in 2009 by Orange Labs San Francisco (OLSF) provides some hope. Guided by a historical perspective, enriched by interviews with high-profile women executives and journalists in technology, supplemented by interviews with young girls, and complemented by literature review and secondary research, the research project "Her Code: Engendering Change in the Silicon Valley" examined the under-representation of women in STEM fields. The project results are available in multiple formats: a magazine, a report, and a video [9]. Interviews conducted by Pascale Diaine of OLSF for the Her Code project, highlight the technological shift of "computing for a purpose." Diaine's interviews at the SD Forum's Teen Tech Titans of Tomorrow provide concrete examples of how "a more contextual approach includes early experiences that situate the technology in realistic settings" could draw more girls into the field [7].

Anika Ayyar, a seventh grader at Harker School in San Jose, CA, is exemplary of the shift toward a more socially conscious deployment of technology. Ayyar is the founder of, whose main purpose is to "introduce philanthropy to kids." Skip-a-Birthday connects tweens and teens, 10 to 18 years old, whose birthdays are at about the same time and gets them to "skip" an elaborate birthday party and instead work together to raise funds for a worthy organization.

Since the Margolis study "experience with computers between boys and girls has equalized," according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Another interview at the SD Forum resonates with these findings. When asked about gender differences in learning about technology, Emily, a 13-year-old student, commented: "Anyone can learn, if they just get accustomed to it. Technology is cool for both genders actually. Maybe a lot of people think that boys are more into it, but recently with all the Girls Tech Challenge and SD Forum promoting girls [they are] getting them interested in science and technology. Everyone can do it."

back to top  Social Seen

In addition to young girls, OLSF interviewed many of the female stars of Silicon Valley who have developed codes, started companies, and funded startups for the HerCode project [10]. These women are omnipresent at networking functions and online, be it news coverage, YouTube, blogs, Flickr, or Twitter. Their adept use of social media provides young women with a glimpse into their professional and personal lives. Through social media tools like Twitter, these young women can begin to imagine what the daily lives of their role models are like, and new coverage on the Web provides them with a longer view of particular career paths in technology.

The Web's shift to more emotionally rich content favors girls and women who tend to cultivate social networks, develop emotional connections online, and create profile pages more than men and boys. Furthermore, the anecdotal and storytelling quality of the Internet today also makes it a more girl-friendly domain. And as young girls of the GenZ generation (born after 1995) become proficient in programming interfaces like and social networks like Club Penguin and Webkinz, which promote storytelling through the use of emerging technologies and cuddly stuffed animals, we can begin to rethink conventional strategies for increasing the participation of women in the development of technology. It is imperative to contextualize STEM education today as something very different from more than three decades ago when Laya Wiesner initiated the WIT workshop at MIT. (Indeed, MIT's current president is Susan Hockfield, a noted neuroscientist.) Clearly, we must look beyond "educators" and ""employers" to increase women's participation in the STEM fields. By harnessing the social component of today's technology, maximizing its network effects, cultivating role models through social media, and understanding the appeal of "purposeful programming" to women, we can start to imagine a world where the cyberpioneers are girls [11].

back to top  References

1. Markoff, J. "Computer Science Programs Make a Comeback in Enrollment." the New York Times, March 16, 2009.

2. "Fastest Growing Demographic on Facebook: Women Over 55.";

3. Heil, B. and Piskorski, M. "New Twitter Research: Men Follow Men and Nobody Tweets." Voices;

4. Arafeh, S., Lenhart, A., Macgill, A., and Smith, A. "Writing, Technology and Teens." Pew Internet;

5. Storytelling Alice;

6. Rosser, S. Female-Friendly Science: Applying Women's Studies Methods and Theories to Attract Students. New York: Teachers College Press, 1990.

7. Fisher, A., Margolis, J., and Miller, F. "Computing for a Purpose: Gender and Attachment to Computer Science" (Work in progress). Carnegie Mellon Project on Gender and Computer Science;

8. See for examples: CarrotMobs;; 1BlockOffTheGrid (1BOG);; The Whuffie Bank;; or CitySourced;

9. "Her Code: Engendering Change in the Silicon Valley";;;

10. These include women with computer science or engineering backgrounds, like Marissa Mayer of Google, Leah Culver of Pownce, Gina Bianchini of Ning, and Ann Winblad of Winblad Hummer.

11. Rosenbloom, S. "Sorry, Boys, This Is Our Domain." New York Times, February 21, 2008.

back to top  Author

Natalie Quizon is the user experience and design lead in the Knowledge Transfer Group at Orange Labs San Francisco (OLSF), part of France Telecom. Quizon combines her formal training as a cultural anthropologist with her knowledge of user-centered design issues to generate innovation insights. She brings 15 years of experience in research into underlying human-behavior patterns. In addition to evangelizing design thinking, developing ideation strategies, researching emerging trends in culture and technology, she has also worked on the design of location-based services and social media. Prior to OLSF, she worked for Lante Corporation, an internet consultancy in San Francisco, as a senior user researcher in the User Experience Group. Before Lante Corporation, she went to Hong Kong as a Fulbright Scholar to conduct ethnographic research, where she also worked as a technical writer and university lecturer. Quizon has a B.A. in social science from the University of California, Berkeley and is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she also received her M.A.

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