Computers, Gender and The Imagination

I’ve been watching Tim Berners-Lee’s Do lecture, and it has crystallised something for me about IT, education, and a little bit about gender.

The other week on I-forget-which lefty/feminist/big hippy blog, there was another round of the usual flap about women in IT – how there weren’t enough of them, and the culture is bad, and we don’t do enough to encourage them, and we don’t give them an appropriate education to prepare them.

Without wishing to bore you all with a long personal history, I’m going to have to ask you to take my word for the fact that I got a dreadful IT education, and was fairly actively discouraged from pursuing it by my school. My one attempt to get an IT education was an absolutely dismal failure. Please, just trust me when I say: whatever you think an education that doesn’t prepare people to go into IT was, I got it. By the end of my formal education, I’d been taught that what a computer was for was word processors and spreadsheets, and how to use versions of them that were so primitive they were out of date before I left school. And a little bit about Charles Babbage that I don’t really remember any more, although I very clearly remember studying IT in soporifically hot classroom without any computers in it. I trust you see my point: school taught me that computers were dull and boring, and while they may not have taught me it because of my gender, they did very effectively teach me that computers were Not For Me.

In other words: I got exactly the sort of education that people talk about young women getting when the subject comes up in relation to gender. So obviously, these young women are just slackers, who aren’t trying hard enough.

No. Don’t be ridiculous. The difference, of course, is in my home life. (But not quite in the way you think.)

Even at home I wasn’t the image of the teenage male geek (in this respect – I had all the others down pat). Sure, I had a computer in the house from a young age, but what I used it for was games. I shoved a disk in the drive, double clicked an icon, and grabbed a joystick, and off I went. (I also used it for homework, from time to time.)


I remember my Uncle building his first computer from a kit, and I remember the little basic program he and my cousin wrote on it so that we could play spaceship – not so that we could play space invaders, you understand, but so that we could play spaceship. It didn’t do much more that ask us to “Turn on Artificial Gravity”, “Plot Course”, flash up the odd “Life Support Emergency” warning and generally beep and cause the screen to flash every so often, but it made our childish pretence of being interstellar explorers much more exciting, as we dashed around the living room, shooting imaginary lasers at mostly-imaginary bug-eyed monsters, before getting back in our spaceship, engaging the artificial gravity, and blasting off to some other world, hampered only by a life support emergency or two en route.

And as I grew up, I remember my Dad programming applications to track Christmas turkey orders at my Grandfather’s butcher’s shop, or, in my teenage years, applications to help record competitors times at triathlon events, and so on and so forth.

We got the intertubes plumbed in when I was 17, and a year or so after that I got into HTML because I wanted a web page of my own, like half my internet friends had, and from there into actual programming. And it was at this point, that the lessons I had unknowingly learned about computers sprang into life.

It wasn’t that computers were easy (I still find them hard), or that computer programming was intrinsically fun, worthwhile, or rewarding (I still don’t think it is, which is what separates me from the “proper” computer geeks – give me a way to avoid programming, and I’ll probably take it). It was simply this: that you can make a computer do anything. I learned that programming computers is a fundamentally creative act, and that the only limit on what you can make a computer do (assuming that you’re willing to put in the time and effort) is the limit of your imagination.

Even though I hadn’t programmed a damn thing in my life, I’d been around others who did. They did it for all sorts of reasons, and they built all sorts of things. And so when I finally decided to do it myself, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t for me, and not because I was a bloke, but just because my conception of what you did with a computer was akin to my conception of what you did with pen and paper, or a guitar, or camera. Only more so. I absolutely understood that a computer was a tool to enable my imagination, right from that that first experience of my uncle’s starship simulator. (I’m not saying that my gender was irrelevant – I do appreciate that society casts computers as a boys thing, and I wasn’t going to be discouraged from sitting at a computer, just because of my gender – I’m saying that it was irrelevant to my personal conception of the reasons to sit at a computer).

It’s not about demystifying them. It’s not about not teaching girls that computers are a boys thing, or that they’re not hard or boring. (Well, it is, but not quite in the way you think…)

It’s not just about the contents of the education, it’s about the context that education occurs in (especially when realistically, the content of that education will be out of date by the time they come to apply most of it). It’s about teaching girls and boys alike that computers are a creative thing. If I’d been taught that in school, I’m fairly sure I’d have stayed awake in IT lessons. I was lucky, and got that context in spite of the content.

Taking them out of the realm of maths and science (which shouldn’t be seen as gendered anyway, but that’s another thing for another time), and casting computers as creative tools instantly makes it harder to gender them as “for” one gender more than another. I’m not saying it makes it impossible, and I obviously have no idea what these things are like for women, but at the same time, a quick look around my female friends suggests that while many, if not most of them may have been taught that computers weren’t for them, very few of them seem to have been taught that “creativity” wasn’t for them. Almost all of them write (even if it’s “only” a blog) or take photos (even if it’s “only” holiday snaps) or draw (even if it’s only “doodling for fun”. Why should they (and of course, all my male friends) not also program (even if it’s only “so I can let my kids fly a spaceship”).



(I hate to close on a parenthetical aside, but I know if that I don’t, some well-meaning person will take me up on it: many of my female friends do far, far more in those various fields than the “even it’s only” stuff I’ve listed at the end there, and I’m not seeking to suggest that women are limited to “hobby” level creativity, I’m simply setting an inclusively broad base.)

One Comment

  1. Enjoyed this.

    Having two young daughters now I have a personal stake in this.

    The other thing I would throw in from my personal experience was that at uni I initially did a mix of pure maths, applied maths and computer science. Of these, pure maths was the one that had a lot of intimidatingly clever girls on it. Was pure maths seen as ‘creative’? Don’t know.

    Programming still has an image problem anyway. I can go a certain way with the current thing of labelling yourself as a geek but I remember a lot of genuinely annoying bastard geeks from school and uni.

    There is more self-expression possible now than has ever been possible in human history and although programming is an activity that takes place within a more fixed set of rules than painting does (a program that won’t run is not a program but but any paint on canvas is at least a bad painting), yeah, it should be seen as a creative thing, because it is bringing something into being that didn’t exist before.

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