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EDITIONS
Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
Women look to shape the future
Woman on a computer
Few women attracted to work in technology jobs
Emma Smith, founder of the Wired Woman Society and co-author of Technology With Curves, explains why women need to be more involved in the world of technology.
Women are using technology more than ever before. They do more online shopping than their male counterparts and are making up an increasing percentage of internet users around the world.

But while the number of women who use computers is increasing, fewer and fewer are studying computer science at university.

It seems that women are shying away from the very careers that would give them their best shot at gaining influence and making a difference in the 21st Century.

One of the most commonly cited reasons for not pursuing careers in technology is its image. Many women, particularly young women, think that technology careers are geeky, anti-social and even boring.

The truth is somewhat different. Some of the most influential people are web developers, engineers, video game programmers, 3D effects creators and industrial designers, who are using technology to revolutionise the tools and content that shape our world.

The technologies they create are shaping our homes, workplaces, media and worldview.

Going digital

For women to take their place as equal partners in the future, women who study psychology should also study human computer interaction.

Woman with a clipboard
Technology jobs seen as geeky
Women who study law should take their place among the policy-makers who, every day, are making immense decisions about privacy, the digital divide, free speech and child protection.

Women who love history should learn how knowledge management, archiving, and content storage are setting the stage for a complete overhaul of the museum experience.

And women who want to teach should also play a role in building e-learning systems that people actually use.

Being able to design computer interfaces, influence privacy policy, build interactive museums and create teaching tools is what women throughout history have fought for.

Even when societal norms and the legal system made it nearly impossible for women to work in information technology, they stood their ground so that today, women who want to shape technology can do just that.

History of invention

Looking at the history books shows that women have been creating new technologies for centuries.

There are probably even more women inventors than most people are aware of, given that until the passage of the Married Women's Property Act, everything owned or invented by a woman was legally her husband's possession.

Still, the patent records show how much women have contributed to the world of technology:

  • In 1903 Mary Anderson came up with windscreen wipers which became standard equipment on all American cars by 1916.
  • In 1938, Katherine Blodgett was awarded the patent for non-reflecting glass, a discovery that has since been used to de-ice aircraft wings and increase the effectiveness of smoke screens.
  • During the mid-1900s, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper invented the first computer compiler which helped computers understand simple commands.
  • In the 1950s Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar, the synthetic fibre used to make bullet-proof-vests.
  • New Yorker Marion Donovan invented the disposable nappy in 1950.
These women shaped technology against the odds. Today the odds are more in women's favour.

Yet many women shy away from the careers that will give them a chance to make the biggest difference, in part just because they do not understand them.

Shaping technology

Women still think that shaping technology means sitting alone at a desk, staring at a screen and writing code.

Head of HP, Carly Fiorina
Carly Fiorina: One of the few role models in technology
In fact shaping technology means thinking creatively, understanding people's needs and inventing new ways of communicating and working together.

Tomorrow's leading artists, politicians, managers and interior designers will all use and shape technology in order to succeed.

If women were shaping technology perhaps the next windscreen wiper would emerge alongside an entirely new web browser and cars that suit a woman's way of life.

Anita Borg of Xerox PARC in California holds workshops that bring women from all walks of life together to brainstorm new technologies.

"If women were more involved in creating new technologies," says Ms Borg, "cars would have a place for you to put your handbag."


Emma Smith runs At Large Media, a London-based new media consulting company. She also works with e-skills UK to improve the image of technology careers in the UK.

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17 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
16 Jan 02 | Technology
11 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
18 Dec 01 | UK
14 Jun 01 | Business
23 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
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