girls and computers

Posted in Random thoughts at 11:14 am by ducky

Maria Klawe is giving a talk at UBC today about how girls and women differ from boys and men in their uses of and attitudes towards computers and computing. I will be sorry to miss it, but hubby and I are out of town attending to family.

When I was at Interval Research Corporation, Brenda Laurel was working there to develop computer games for girls. I remember her research boling down to basically that girls usually wanted stories and participation, while boys usually wanted to dominate and win. This seemed consistent with what I’d read in Deborah Tannen‘s book You Just Don’t Understand.

I was thinking about computer languages versus natural languages one day. It had always seemed that there were a lot of women in my French and English classes, while computer science was mostly men. To me, they seem to take similar skills (at least at one level). In both cases, there’s a very finicky and arbitrary syntax to learn. In both cases, it doesn’t matter what you feel like ought to be correct; the other culture/the computer are right and will insist on their correctness despite how you feel about it. (This Camel has Two Humps seems to indicate that accepting that rigidity is part of becoming a good programmer.) In both English and CS, I was taught to organize my thoughts with an outline/flowchart, then fill in the details bit by bit. In both, it takes years to gain mastery.

Why then, the gender discrepancy? After thinking about it, I decided that the women probably learn French so that they can converse, and the men learn CS so that they can dominate. I can imagine a girl thinking, “Why should I spend all that time learning its language when it can’t even have meaningful conversations?” I can imagine a boy thinking, “Why should I spend all that time learning French, when I can’t dominate them?”

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