Geekamama


2 Comments

Aunt CompSci wants YOU!

Can social media inspire more young women to explore computer science? It’s an idea Jocelyn Goldfein, a Director of Engineering at Facebook, discussed in an interview with the Seattle Times a few weeks ago. Bringing more visibility to the women who built popular features like the news feed and photo viewer could interest teenage girls in tech-related careers, she says.

I’ll admit that it’s a start, but I think it’s going to take much more than that.

Software engineering has a big strike against it right from the get-go: it’s still perceived as a guys’ world–one full of gadget-loving geeks whose idea of a good weekend is blasting their way through the latest shoot-em-up video game. Guys who are intelligent to the point of cockiness, but lacking somewhat in social awareness. Most teenage girls aren’t going to find the appeal in a world like that.

When I look back at my high-school self, I see someone who already knew what her career was going to be, and the only keyboarding involved would be writing up the news stories I’d been chasing all day. Journalism seemed like a great fit for me; I earned scholarships and assembled a good clip file. But as I learned more about the hours and workdays, the shine came off a bit. When I was a senior in college, I got interested in the potential of the World Wide Web thing–remember, this was the mid-90s, when it wasn’t the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Less than a year after I finished my Journalism degree, I was back in grad school studying computer science.

I’d like to claim that what changed my course was the foresight that we were on the edge of a paradigm shift, and I wanted to be in on the beginning. But in fact the only reason I even knew about the web was because some friends of mine had gotten me interested in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), one of the early chat networks, and people who were more tech-minded than me were starting to talk about this internet thing.

What draws people into the field that eventually becomes their career? For many of my female peers, it was because computers and programming were something they got into when they were young, and that appeal never went away entirely. But when it came time to choose a degree program, a lot of us looked elsewhere. Is that because that other career path simply seemed a better fit? Or did the idea of darkened rooms, flickering monitors, and the complete lack of a social life put us off?

These days, there are a lot more young women online than there were when I was growing up. But most of them are there to use the software, not to create it. Knowing how to use a computer isn’t anything special anymore; in fact, it’s more or less required in our day-to-day lives. And yet, the number of women studying software and systems is down from previous decades. Less than one in five computer science majors are women, says the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

To draw more women into the fields of computer science and engineering, the most important thing we need to do is change the perception that’s it’s a playground for “brogrammers.” And yes, maybe Goldfein’s idea of giving more visibility to female programmers will help with that. But I think it’s the wrong presentation. “Look at this woman who is a programmer!” is not going to do it; all it does is emphasize the rarity of women in the field. We have to get to “Look at this programmer who happens to be a woman,” before we can achieve that mental shift.

Advertisements


3 Comments

Is privacy just an act?

I keep trying to write something up about the recent New York Times article on how Target gleans information from shoppers to better, well, target them as customers. I’ve swung from “that’s a little eerie” over to “yeah, but data mining can be fun! and beneficial!” to “the practice shouldn’t be banned, but customers need to be aware that it’s happening.” In the end, the one thing that I keep coming back to is this: it’s a little silly to complain about our personal data being used, when we put so much of it out there voluntarily.

Update: Here’s a better summary of the issue: How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

 

Any time you use a credit card, sign up for a discount shopping card, or create an online account with your personal email address, you’re giving the recipient a way to keep track of the actions associated with that ID. Ever give a doctor’s office or other service your social security number? I’d put money down that they aren’t planning to use it for tax purposes.

People share personal stories on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, choosing to pull back the curtain to the world. Once it’s out there on the ‘net, it’s out there forever. People have lost their jobs because of their Facebook updates, and have been detained by TSA for what they posted on Twitter.

Personally, I’ve been an un-fan of Facebook since the update last October. For the past five months, the songs you’ve listened to and the news stories you’ve read on many websites have gotten shared automatically, rather than letting you choose for yourself. Oh, and that can happen even when you’re not signed in. Sometimes it surprises me how many people are okay with that.

Those of us who are parents have another privacy issue to consider: the privacy of our children, many of whom may not be old enough or savvy enough to realize the implications of the way their parents share (or overshare) information. I wrestled with this issue myself not long after starting this blog, when considering whether I should post pictures of my cute little Kiddo here.

I’m not deluding myself; even though I use a nickname for him here and on Twitter, it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to find out his real name. Birth certificates are public records; depending on the state, all you might need is the child’s date of birth and the full name of one or both parents. How to find those out? Marriage, divorce, and name change records are public data too. And if those don’t pan out, there’s always Spokeo, where fifteen bucks will buy you all kinds of personal information.

Oh, but there’s a much easier route. One common practice on Facebook is to tag pictures of children with the names of their parents. Look for pictures of me, and you’ll find pictures of Kiddo captioned with his real name. Many of those are in albums restricted to “Friends of friends” — which really isn’t a restriction at all, considering how most of people’s hundreds of friends also have hundreds of friends themselves.

So, given all that, isn’t it a little hypocritical to complain about the way Target collects and uses personal data about individual shoppers’ purchases? In my view, the only line that they might have overstepped is not giving customers more disclosure that by shopping at Target, the company reserves the right to track the data that they volunteer. Discount cards and internet hotspots have this buried in the fine print that people generally skip over when they sign up, but there’s no notice on the door when you walk into Target. I’m sure that Target isn’t the only retailer that does this, either. They’re just the only one that got caught at it.