Privacy

Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development. – Julie E. Cohen

Writer Muriel Spark kept her own archives. Every bus ticket, theatre ticket, diary, shopping list, cheque stub, etc., she kept and stored in boxes for years until she sold the lot to the National Library of Scotland.

When I first read about Spark’s archive, I loved her chutzpah. But, in Appointment in Arezzo, Alan Taylor explains that the archive was far from her having one eye on posterity. Spark kept it so that she had irrefutable proof of who she was and the experiences which had shaped her. She could use that archive to know the truth about herself and her past especially when people she had known and loved wrote about her unfavourably.

Nowadays we all have similar archive, online. It boggles my mind how Google has recorded every journey I have ever made when using its maps. Elsewhere I am in databases in the workplace, pension plans, the doctor’s, the dentist, the TFL Oyster card system, and so on. My offline archive is just a mountain of old diaries.

Personal information, like the fields found in a database, wasn’t really collected until after WWII, and even then it didn’t become a commodity until much later on when businesses began to collect it to sell us things. Before that, there wasn’t much anyone didn’t know about you in your community say like your village. I know where I grew up everyone knew everything about me. But there is a massive difference between the facts that are known about me by neighbours and the journals I have kept.

It is the same today. I mean I don’t care if you know where I go, or what I buy, or how old I am. I don’t publicise these things and definitely not online, but even so, if you asked me I would probably tell you. However, if you were to come round my house and read my diaries I would be mortified. They are private.

Privacy is a social construct. Historically people lived closely together so there was no privacy. It was only in the US in 1980, it came to mean the right to be let alone as defined in Samuel D Warren and Louis Brandeis’ article titled The Right to Privacy.

UK and EU law is more piecemeal, we have privacy of information and the right to respect for our private and family life but nothing as clear as the US torts.

There might be lots of personal information about us in databases or in other people’s heads where we fit demographically, but that is not the same as our hopes, our dreams, or our irritating habits, which is why when someone shares that sort of information about us or indeed reads it in a diary, without our permission, especially if it is something we wouldn’t want the whole village or indeed Internet to know, it can feel like a horrible betrayal and a violation of our privacy.

That said, our everyday lives are a constant trade off between privacy and intimacy, between sociability and creating relationships. Privacy is not an absolute state and it can be doubly difficult to figure out where we are, when we are the individuals who have offered up our private space in the first place, which is what we do when we put up pictures of our houses, or our lunch, or ourselves, online.

Knowing yourself in the face of others

Knowing what to keep private can be a hard call and can change from day to day. With people online, whom we chat to, we tend to fall into an immediate trust and share more readily because trusting and sharing is what builds intimacy, and as we have little to go on with a virtual someone else, we may violate our own privacy to drum up a sense of intimacy and trust, and if the other person turns out to be not what they said they were then we may feel a bit foolish, that’s if we are lucky!

We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin. – André Berthiaume

But it is not our fault. Laurence Scott says in The Four Dimensional Human, that the modern message is that we are fundamentally isolated from each other and that when we get online we have the abstract promise of going home, it has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a sign or word elsewhere.

In other words, connection gives our lives meaning and we will readily trade some privacy for the promise of not feeling socially excluded. And, if Scott is to be believed, then technology has trained him to be permanently online hoping for some connection.

The hoped for self

And, if that is true, it is no wonder that Scott remains frustrated that people do not share the things which he feels really need to be shared and instead curate their lives carefully to makes themselves look like they are having a life well lived. In his words: We gentrify our web presence and describes social media as a bit of a stage performance.

But how else are we to behave? Being honest and vulnerable online or off takes courage, so if the person or indeed the whole gang of people with whom you are sharing don’t understand or empathise, and in a worst case scenario, let you know, you can feel crushed and ganged up against. It is only with a strong sense of self can you recover.

Privacy provides you with a space in which to discover that sense of self but if you are never offline then how can you cultivate one? You cannot do it online if you are wanting randomers to satisfy your painful yearnings for connection.

I read something today that the optimum number of friends of Facebook is 300. Anymore and you look like you have no friends. Elsewhere, like Twitter or LinkedIn, lots of followers makes you look fabulous. Connectedness is a commodity and we work hard to keep our numbers up. We cannot win. Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman has said that we are under siege in this pervasive digital culture and there are a lot of rules made up by social media experts for us to manage and succeed online. We need to be authentic, unless of course we are not very nice then we have to hide that and pretend to be nice, authentic, and the same as everyone else.

We like rules to make sense of things and we have long been told how we should live our lives by the media, with social media there are just more ways to be told how to conform.

In Cave in the snow author Vicki MacKenzie, describes how Buddhist monk Tenzin Palmo moved into a cave up the Himalayas so that she could meditate in peace:

She could begin to unravel the secrets of the inner world – the world that was said to contain the vastness and wonder of the entire universe.

More and more I am beginning to think this aptly describes privacy. We could all do with a bit of solitude to build our emotional and digital resilience. The Internet is fabulous as it compresses time and space, great for maintaining friendships, keeping in touch with loved ones, running businesses, and so on. But if all we do is constantly look online to find meaning,connection and validation then we will never give ourselves that time and space to give those things to ourselves.

We don’t have to go mad like Tenzin Palmo and sit in a cave for 12 years or indeed emulate Christopher Knight the man who lived alone in the woods for 27 years and experienced deep transcendental moments in nature. We don’t  even need to delete our social media accounts as Jared Lenier warns us we must. But, we need to protect our inner world, our privacy, so that if we never unravel the secrets of the entire universe, or transcend ourselves watching the fog lift at sunrise, we know enough to love and respect our own dear selves, so that we are able to connect with love and respect to our fellow human beings, by transcending the painful yearning we sometimes get when our needs are not being met.

The man in the woods’s observation of the mobile phone is fascinating: Why, he wonders, would a person take pleasure in using a telephone as a telegraph machine? “We’re going backwards,” he says.

Privacy is the space in which we come on home to ourselves. There’s no need to camp out online in the hope of making a home in a stranger’s photo album.

My grey hair two years on

When you know better, you do better – Maya Angelou

Three years ago, I went into a fancy hair salon to get my hair done. I said I would like to go grey and the hairdresser MAN doing my hair, who had grey hair tied up in a ponytail, said: Oh no you can’t go grey it will age you and it takes a lot of work to maintain it much more than dying your hair. I did not question what he said. Instead I sat there and wondered why he got to have grey hair as he put an auburn colour on my hair, ‘cos he decided I was auburn. I couldn’t possibly have been originally a brunette not with that pale ginger freckly skin. Two weeks later when my roots came through I put a brunette rinse on. Here’s a picture of me in first year at university, before I ever started dying my hair. I was brunette.

I really believed that going grey would be similar to the chemotherapy journey I had gone on and that I would love the different styles throughout the regrowth. But, it wasn’t at all like that. Looking in the mirror challenged me everyday, and I hated my hair. I just couldn’t believe that after everything I have lived through that I was still worried about the way I look. However, by not valuing my own feelings and trying to talk myself out of them, I disrespected myself as much as the male hairdresser who wasn’t listening to me but absolutely knew, without knowing me at all, what was right for me. He was the walking embodiment of the patriarchal lie that society knows what is best for me and for all women, that I have no idea myself, and I don’t need to have an input. I was so used to this sort of nonsense I didn’t even question him nor myself. It has taken a lot of soul searching.

Mass media shapes the way we think and even though I have spent a lot of time writing about women in society, social media in society and so on, I am a member of society and not immune to the beauty sick message society peddles about how women should look (sexy fertile objects for male delectation and childbearing) and how women berate thenselves for not rising above it. It is exhausting. But how can I have a solid sense of self when I am bombarded everyday about how I should show up in the world? Googling about grey hair alone gives us so many articles like this one: Going grey ages women twice as fast as men. The BBC regularly sideline older women whilst their male counterparts are allowed to age in public (I believe let themselves go is the phrase which would be used if they were female) and continue their careers.

So there it is in a nutshell, my fear when I looked in the mirror, echoed by the male hairdresser, and much of society, is this: If I don’t cover my grey hair then I may be viewed as past my sell-by-date. The world will view me as irrelevant and I will be no longer seen nor heard. I will be put out to pasture like an old crone, devalued by our patriarchal society.

Yesterday, I took the above picture of myself and added it to the gallery in the blog post Fifty Shades of My Grey Hair. It will be the last one I put there as it marks the end of the two year journey I’ve just been on. The fancy hair salon went on its own journey too. It is now a gluten-free bakery. Each time I walk by it reminds me that I am the one who decides how I show up in the world. Society cannot tell me who I am or what my worth is. I am the one to do so and let me tell you this, the way I look has nothing to do with it. That said I am beginning to feel that I no longer want to explain myself to anyone but should I want to say something, well, heaven help anyone who wants to try and stop me.

I do look older with grey hair, two years older to be precise, because I am two years older than I was when I began this journey. I am two years wiser too with the experience of two more trips around the sun. So with my extra wisdom and experience, I can tell you this: Grey is just a hair colour and I look miles better than I did when I let a double-standards bloke dye it because I was too afraid to show up as myself.

Women (Conclusions): Society, Storytelling, Technology (9)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 9 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

Back in 2001, I attended a series of seminars in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University led by Professor Lucy Suchman about how women felt excluded online as software felt masculine. At the time I was a new lecturer in the Department of Computing and I was intrigued by the idea that software could be seen as having a gender.

Now I see that my route into the field of technology was unusual. I have ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, French and History and turned up to do a computing degree with my total computing experience consisting of 10 minutes of trying to play The Hobbit on a Spectrum ZX 48k before my older brother took it off me (it was his computer). I had no expectations of what I would be doing, and for much of the time I had no idea what I was actually doing either. So, it was my humanities background rather than my gender which made me feel a bit of an outsider.

Later, doing a PhD in Switzerland, I felt that it was my nationality and the fact I couldn’t understand what anyone were saying to me for a couple of years, which made me feel like an outsider, not my gender.

And, even when I created my first webpage with a photo of myself and five minutes later got email saying You look very nice, do you want to meet for coffee? It just never occurred to me that it had anything to do with my gender, because the Internet to me was a place for sharing research, even if it was with socially awkward men. It took a male colleague in the lab to explain exactly the kind of socially awkward man with which I was dealing.

Now I think I was completely naive and lived in a little bubble of my own thoughts. Last year when a male social media acquaintance told me that he liked to look at pictures of me online, sadly, I knew what that meant (although to be honest, I like looking at pictures of me online too). It also meant that I could never have a professional working relationship with the man, which is something I am still furious about because I didn’t get a say. This man decided exactly how we were going to relate to each other, irrespective of my feelings.

I want, as a woman, to have choices, in what I do, how I relate to people and what sorts of relationships I want with people. I am so tired that a patriarchal society dictates to me how these things go down based on my gender. And I am sad that many women feel the same way about computing and software because some men wrote it completely from a male perspective and the whole field is populated by men who leave no room for women to breathe in. They are not doing it on purpose either – well not all of them. It is semi-institutionalised now, which is really sad, though I have worked with loads of lovely, kind, generous men.

I was going to finish this series with facts about how women make better software engineers than men. But, the truth is I don’t really care and it doesn’t really matter. It is not about which gender is superior. It is not a competition. It is about equal opportunity, feeling welcome and comfortable in a given domain.

The government has spent millions on encouraging women into STEM but they don’t go, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have done had I got a place on an English Lit degree course. Women do not go into Computing because they cannot recognise or see themselves in it. This is because there are:

  • No role models – we are not taught them as part of the history of computing.
  • No tribes – research shows that women are more likely to show up on forums to discuss technical solutions if there are already other women present.
  • No stories which make it seem worthwhile, there are just loads of stories about women being harassed ‘cos of their gender or excluded because of male-group think.
  • No rewards – research shows that women are systematically penalised if they take time out to continue the human race.
  • No equal pay.
  • No respect for their work. Women have justify themselves over and over and over again.

I could go on. Indeed I have already for at least 10,000 words and seriously, I could go on forever about rage, about boundaries, about ageing, about sex, about love, to name but a few topics which I think about when I think about women.

We need to reevaluate the role of women in both STEM and society. For inasmuch as society is stacked in a man’s favour, it is women who raise these men, and give them legitimacy and excuses from a very early age. The boys my girls interact with on the playground are raised by women who would call themselves feminists but I have heard them say things like Oh he is such a boy. But these women were raised by women who were raised by women etc.

In order to make a change, we need to reclaim language, we need a genealogy of women and to make space for women in history whilst we learn again to respect the life of women in the home and elsewhere online and offline.

As the naive optimist I have always been and hope I always will be, I believe that change is coming, and that as more women write books (like this one with the awesome title: A Uterus is A Feature, Not a Bug), do TED talks and go on marches, I believe that change for the good is on its way. I really do.

And, one of the ways in which the Internet can help is that all our interactions are recorded and can be analysed to further understand and hopefully change the bad ways in which we have learnt to interact. It also makes it easy to share the stories about women that we don’t know. For example, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor as well as a movie star.

In a lovely Facebook post psychotherapist Matt Licata says that we all have an innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness but often between men and women this gets misconstrued as sexual and erotic rather than the honouring of one soul by another. If we could teach this honouring to the future generations, in particular, those men and women who will go into marketing and media who by their messages, form society, then perhaps we could see a change in the way the world works – a world which is more peaceful and more respectful and a lot less heterosexy. Now, that would be a world I’d like to live in, it would be just like that bubble I used to live in way back when the world felt like it was magic and new, online and off.

Women and girls on social media: Society, Storytelling, Technology (8)

© Kim Kardashian Instagram

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 8 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

At the public defence of my doctorate (ma soutenance de thèse publique), I had one of those cameras with film in which needed developing. It is hard to imagine in these days of digital immediacy, taking the film to the chemist, to get it developed and be surprised by what pictures had been taken.

I was surprised alright as some of my fellow (male) students took a few snaps of themselves naked for me to remember them by. I am just glad I wasn’t the one who had gone into Boots to pick up the photos. Being scientists, they were, of course, ahead of their time, dick pics are really all the rage online nowadays, even if us women have no idea why. Had my mates dressed theirs up a bit like this guy, I might have found it funnier and whilst googling about I did laugh a lot at this instagram page of responses to dick pics and other invitations.

It has been said that Kim Kardashian invented the naked selfie and she says that she finds it empowering and I understand what she is saying. She has control over her image and she is deciding how to represent herself, albeit it seems, she is choosing to do so as a sex object.

Men are rarely perceived as sex objects though this article in Marie Claire has tried to readdress the balance by listing full frontal male nudity in films. What is interesting about the article is what the male actors say about why and how they showed their genitalia. In contrast, gratuitous full frontal female nudity is very common.

Film theorist Professor Laura Mulvey says, female bodies are positioned as to-be-looked-at, and these bodies are viewed from a masculinised subject position/gaze. The viewer’s gaze is always assumed to be male in any given narrative and as I mentioned in Women’s bodies, it was the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, who first celebrated the naked feminine form. So since 330BC, we’ve been trained to look at women from a male point of view, which is probably why when you ask a man if they find another man sexy, they will say that they have no idea. Ask a woman if she find another woman sexy and they will say yes or no.

Online: Heterosexy or shameless ?

Given that we are bombarded everyday by messages from the media, marketing and culture about our gender and our roles, which have with them prescribed appropriate behaviour, as a woman online you can currently only go two ways:

  1. You can do the Kim Kardashian and conform to a sex object stereotype which Sociologist Amy Shields Dobson , in her excellent book Postfeminist Digital Cultures, calls heterosexy; or
  2. you can do the performative shameless approach, aka the ladette approach, as made popular in the 90s offline by Zoe Ball et al.

The ambiguity with Kim Kardashian is that she has pushed the hetrosexy boundary. Is it empowering? Or, is it porn? Sharon Osbourne called her a ‘ho saying: She has had half of Hollywood which is a perfect example of the slut-shaming which occurs when a woman goes beyond the feminine stereotype of:

A self who appears visually complicit with current standards of active, up-for it, girl-powered femininity, without overtly evidencing sexual desires or sexual activity that might render her vulnerable to slut-shaming… (Renold and Ringrose, 2011).

This quote is from a paper about teenage girls and sexualisation. But ask any woman of any age and she will recognise it. I know I do. Since about the ’60s’ I would say women have been encouraged to conform to this ridiculous idea. Girls today have to also do it online where they are bombarded by media messages and by boys.

The pressure of sexting

A male acquaintance of mine last year told me about his teenage son receiving sexually explicit pictures of girls. He seemed to be shocked. But, research performed in the UK and quoted by Shields Dobson says:

  • Girls are asked for sexts more than boys are, while boys are more likely to ask for sexts.
  • Girls receive many more sexual messages online and are asked for sexts much more than boys .
  • Girls’ sexts are shown or sent beyond the intended recipient whilst more boys than girls say they will send on a sexually explicit image of someone else (without the person’s knowledge).
  • More boys are shown or sent explicit images not meant for them.

This academic research is very different to the media reporting on Generation Sex. It is recognisably genderised, patriarchal and same old same old.

I bet it never occurred to my male pal that a) he shouldn’t have been looking at this intimate pic because he is breaking the law, and b) his son might have put considerable pressure on the girl in question to get it.

Marketing and the media captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and molds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality

This same acquaintance said that he had caught his son sneaking to his girlfriend’s room in the middle of the night and told him off, though he felt secretly proud. I asked how would he feel if that was his daughter, he said he would be outraged. He was sufficiently self-aware to recognise his hypocrisy.

However, it is marketing and the media which captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and moulds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality, forms which my male pal embodies and propagates in his role as a father.

Neoliberal or stereotype

This same old might not seem too bad but it is the relentlessness of it 24/7 which is new, for the Internet compresses time and space, so that people feel hounded, which can lead to desperate acts such as the suicide of Amanda Todd. Todd was repeatedly bullied and slut-shamed by her peers because she was pressured into sharing naked pictures of herself. The slut-shaming and bullying I guess would have been in a similar vein to Sharon Osbourne on Kim Kardashian, given that teenagers emulate what they see around them. The difference is Kim Kardashian has an entourage as she goes about her daily life so she is protected and removed from daily life and she also has enough fans to make noise to encourage her critics like Sharon Osbourne to retract her statement.

Kim Kardashian seemingly also doesn’t give a stuff what Sharon Osbourne thinks, which is how we like our girls to be online. We want the girls who are behaving shamelessly to not apologise. We want them to take pride in themselves or the neoliberals amongst us do, those of us who follow stereotypes like my male pal, fall into the Sharon Osbourne camp. Shields Dobson says that being unapologetic is a way of protection. It shuts down a discussion which, of course, would be about how girls shouldn’t behave like that and there must be something wrong with them. Funny how we never have that conversation about boys.

In contrast, the girls who use social media to seek attention, external validation, and support from others are viewed as being in crisis, because we only ever hear the terrible stories of girls who end up trusting the wrong people with their intimate pictures. In reality, we just don’t like vulnerability, we perceive it as weakness and less than and so we bully the victims and once one person starts another will follow – we are socialised to conform.

#mencallmethings and #metoo

A great demonstration of this is in this paper Real men don’t hate women: Twitter rape threats and group identity by Claire Hardaker and Mark McGlashana, who analysed in depth, how journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to ongoing misogynistic abuse on Twitter, including threats of rape and death when all she wanted was to have one woman on a banknote. It started off with a small group of mainly male abusers which then quickly escalated – these people didn’t even know each other and weren’t a group at all – but other trolls saw people abusing Criado-Perez and just joined in.

And it is by trolling or by hijacking these important discussions, in which women talk about how they are treated in society, are shut down. Jessica Megarry in her paper : #mencallmethings (2014) says each time men police the ways in which women are able to conceptualise their own harassment, it appears that men actively perpetuate male social dominance online. But as the Real men don’t hate paper shows, women who don’t want to change the status quo do it too.

I am hopeful change is occurring. The #metoo hashtag has encouraged an open discussion about the harassment of women which has the potential to lead to change. Megarry says that the #mencallmethings hashtag discussion five years ago was depoliticised by shifting the conversation from an explicit focus on men’s harassment of women online to a more general conversation about online cruelty. With the #metoo I didn’t see that happen much, but to be honest I was only looking for women’s stories.

We need to create an online environment where people can speak without judgement which is hard to do because we don’t have it offline particularly. Why is that? And why do we particularly want our girls to be small and quiet? It is a patriarchal stereotype. In contrast, Shields Dobson says that girls online have much to tell us about how they navigate complex and contradictory pressures placed on them by society and it is too early to say whether it is good or bad and whether we should or shouldn’t intervene with what girls put online.

And why are girls doing this in the first place? They are encouraged by the fashion and beauty industries to do all sorts to themselves to meet narrow cultural standards of beauty – you cannot be too big in body or personality, or too thin, or too old, or too anything – to feel that they have worth in this patriarchal society where worth is measured by a girl’s sexual appeal to men. It is exhausting and ridiculous.

As mother to girls I am eager for change, but English Professor Lauren Berlant says that many people’s interests are:

…less in changing the world than in not being defeated by it, and meanwhile finding satisfaction in minor pleasures and major fantasies.

I get that I really do. But sorry Kim Kardashian, I want my girls to have access to bigger better fantasies than the heterosexy ones in which they are female objects designed for men’s gazes, especially online. The thought of the Internet being the same as the real world, well no, just no, as a female computer scientist that is a world which I defy, for it would defeat me every time.

[9) Conclusions]

Women in Tech: Society, Storytelling, Technology (7)

Ada Lovelace and her laptop

The world’s first programmer, Ada Lovelace. Source: Mashable

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 7 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

A couple of years ago, one of the dads at my girls’ school, following an initiative at his workplace, wanted help setting up an after school coding club to teach kids to program. He asked me if I would come along and help because there was a bit about Ada Lovelace and the guidelines would preferably have a woman giving that presentation.  I said I would be pleased to be a role model to guide young girls into IT. I said I would bring my girls and yep, sign me up, show me the materials.

One of my girls at the time was one year too young for the club (following his guidelines) but I said that it would be fine, she’s smart with a love of mathematics, she should come, Indeed she had to come as I look after her, but this man was insistent that she couldn’t come. He didn’t want me childminding – not that I would have been, I would have been teaching – and doing a job. His own wife who had worked in IT stayed at home and looked after his children whilst he ran the code club.

So there you have it. If there hadn’t been a mention in his materials about needing a woman to talk about their job in IT, I doubt he would have even asked me, male group think is prevalent in IT, as well as lots of parts of society. He certainly never felt the need to explain his reasons for not updating me on his plans, and he ran the club regardless with other dads and never mentioned it to me again nor did he ever show me any of the materials. The worst bit of all in this troubling tale is that this man is an IT manager.  A manager!!!

This anecdote, for me, sums up many experiences I have had in the world of IT: A socially awkward male cannot imagine what it is like to be a woman nor can he bend a tiny rule for something bigger than himself.

I am so used to this sort of nonsense in society, I just let it slide.  His individual lack of initiative and imagination can be found everywhere. There are a million stories of women being treated as unimportant in the computing industry and other domains as I discussed in the blog on Women’s Work and that is before we mention the purposeful aggression and sexism and appalling behaviour which happens towards women too.

The picture above is a mashup of Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on his computing machine so officially she is the first computer programmer.  A lot of computing pioneers were women. According to National Program Radio, who looked at the statistics for women in computing, the number of women studying computer science grew faster than the number of men until 1984, when the home computer was invented and marketed to boys, inventing the nerd stereotype and overwriting all the true stories of women in IT.

I was a final year undergraduate the first time I heard about Ada Lovelace and the only reason I learnt about her was because the programming language ADA is named after her. Sitting in a lecture hall full of men, the story of a woman was so invigorating, I taught myself ADA and wrote my final year project in ADA. It only took a few facts of her life to make me feel excited, included, inspired. What other things might I have decided to do had I known about NASA programmer Margaret Hamilton whose code put men on the moon,  she brought her daughter with her to the lab too, and Grace Hopper and her machine independent language ideas which led to COBOL? I learnt COBOL in my second year but no one ever thought she was worth a mention. I tell you COBOL and I might have gotten along much better had I known about Grace.

Female computer scientists were not mentioned during my many years of formal education. Rather like the early 19th century women scientists Caroline Herschel, Jane Marcet, and Mary Somerville, who in their lifetimes were recognised as being at the forefront of European science, but were no longer spoken about by the end of the 19th century because all women had been barred from graduating from university. Written out of history, and not given the legitimacy of belonging like men. What message does that send a woman?

Our culture sends messages whether we like or not and mass culture likes to give us what we already like because it is based on economics. So the moment the male computing geek stereotype was invented, that narrative excluded women, it overwrote those great female stories. Like sells like, and fiscal reasoning doesn’t care about telling new stories especially when it comes to women. Progress is a myth where technology is concerned. We think that any progress is an advancement but it is not. Semiotically speaking, we look for a how not a what, and we choose and reject stories based on how true they feel, which is based on familiarity i.e. the stories we know. So, if a constant narrative is that girls don’t do computing and boys do then this must be true.

It encourages a cultural devaluation of women across society and in particular in technology. Take Stuff Magazine, a magazine for men who are interested in technology. It made me so cross objectifying women that I had to write a whole blog slagging it off and I only slag things off when I am angry. A Menkind shop has just opened up near me which is a gadget shop. Why is it called Menkind? When I passed it, it had a Harry Potter cutout in the window.  Harry Potter eh? We all know that J K Rowling chose her pen name so that she would appeal to young boys. Heaven forbid that society encourages little boys to take women seriously and to listen to whatever story they might have to tell. The bottom line is like sells like, and the bottom line is hard cold cash. Progress is a myth and women’s stories are unimportant.

New Scientist news editor @PennySarchet  wrote in a tweet how she was advised during her PhD to explain everything really simply as if you were talking to a child or your mother. The original tweet she quotes and which has been deleted says grandmother. The cultural devaluation of women starts at home with the mother.

And yet there is hope. There is always hope. Recently, I read  Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo which in the link there to the Guardian has the female reviewer saying her daughter was disappointed not to find J K Rowling and the reviewer herself was disappointed to find Margaret Thatcher. J K Rowling writes books, yes successfully, whereas Thatcher was the first UK female Prime Minister, so the book has made the right choice. You can’t edit Thatcher out of history just because you don’t want to hear her story. She is, historically speaking, an incredibly important figure. Rowling, we can’t say yet, time will tell. But we can say this, she wasn’t the first woman writer in UK history. She is just one that the female reviewer’s daughter has heard of because she hasn’t heard many women’s stories. Why? Because many women have been written out of history.  Am I repeating myself?

I read the book with my daughter who was really interested in the coders and physicists because of me. She kept showing me them and having a chat about it because she is looking for stories which make sense about her world, (even though she was excluded from code club, miaow), a world in which luckily for her, her mother loves computing, and takes up space in that field. But what about those girls whose mothers don’t and only the dads do computing in after school code club?

Lillian Robinson says in Wonder Women: Feminism in stories is about the politics of stories. Each time a story about a woman doing something in a domain that society has traditionally defined as a man’s world is told, that narrative becomes part of the information we women and our girls coming after us use to process our experiences, which leads to that man’s world becoming less male and more populated by women. Hopefully an equal world of equal opportunity. And, the opposite is true, if all the sources of narrative tell the same story about women then nothing will ever change. Like sells like remember.

Let us know as truth that the narratives behind the field of computer science need to be rewritten, let’s stop dealing in stereotypes and lazy journalism, and the misogyny of female prime ministers (which is a whole other blog in itself). Let us look at the big picture, the bright one which stops telling us only men do IT.  In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed says:

Feminism helps you to make sense that something is wrong; to recognise a wrong is to realise that you are not in the wrong.

Don’t make our girls wrong about computing.

[8) Online]