Geek: A feminine word?

Today is Geek Pride Day. But is it also Geekettes Pride Day ? Some consider the first programmer to be a woman: Ada Lovelace who worked on Charles Babbage’s calculating engine. So, what’s the situation today when it comes to women and computers? Isabelle Collet and Rita Bencivenga take a close look at this rarely-explored issue.

Are computers gendered?


Isabelle Collet, teacher and researcher at the University of Geneva, specializes in coeducation, identity, or gender in science, among other issues. Her research is based on a surprising fact: unlike most scientific fields, there are fewer women working in computing today than there were in the 1980s.


Beyond the recurrent stereotype claiming that women are « by nature » less naturally gifted in technology, Isabelle Collet also blames the socio-historical evolution of computing. As she explains, at first, working on a computer was considered as related to typing, almost a secretarial job, hence “made” for women. It was only later that computers became a symbol of power, offering the possibility to « play God ». This shift in perception possibly explains why women were slowly pushed out and why men became more and more attracted to computing.


Isabelle Collet sums it up perfectly when she writes: 

As personal computers became common, the image of the Hacker, both culturally familiar, and potentially desirable for boys, who relate to the power fantasies of hacking, made computing hostile in a girl’s eyes.

Men and women: the same approach towards computers?


Rita Bencivenga’s work is focused on how gender might affect someone’s « relationship» with his or her computer. Her study, based on one-to-one interviews, clearly states that there are no differences between men and women when it comes to performance. No cognitive or neurobiological studies demonstrated any intrinsic weakness in women: 

Research helped point out that men and women tend to use different cognitive strategies when using a computer, but it has never been proven that one gender is superior to the other in this task.

Rita also notes that the preconceptions women are generally subjected to in the professional field – and in science as we often deplore on DiscovHER – also apply in technology. Which could partly explain why there are so few women in this field. The stereotypes impacting the digital world, far from being based on facts and tangible data, reflect a vision of technology and its usage which is influenced by a socially-accepted power imbalance.


Moreover female computing engineers suffer from a lack of women success stories, and when facing sexist or discriminating attacks, most of them choose to shift the focus away from their femininity instead of owning it.


Still to this day, for no rational, justified reason, companies usually prefer to hire men for high-level computing positions, as Rita states.


If you too feel it’s about time the situation for geeketes moved toward equality with geeks, share your thoughts on Twitter with @4womeninscience!


Isabelle Collet is a Master teacher and Educational Sciences researcher at the University of Geneva. Her main themes of study are “coeducation, identity and approach to knowledge” & “gender in mathematics, sciences and applied sciences”. Official site: http://www.isabelle-collet.net/isabelle.collet/Bienvenue.html

Rita Bencivenga is a Doctor doing researches at LEGS, Laboratoire d'études de genre et de sexualité  (Gender and Sexuality Studies Lab), part of French research center CNRS. Official site: https://ritabencivenga.wordpress.com/

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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