PEOPLE | Jun 5, 2018

Gender Gap in ICT: under torture, it is confirmed by the data

Interview with Mariacristina Sciannamblo on the gaps of women working in the field of computer science

As in the scientific sector, gender differences exist in computer science. Salaries, working conditions and success in obtaining research funds make the difference.

“Women nerds (in the sense of those passionate about technology) are perhaps not so few. Certainly there are few women working in the field of computer science with a degree in computer science or computer engineering, just as the female students who enroll and attend these degree courses are few”. Mariacristina Sciannamblo, Post-doc Research Fellow at the Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute and author of the book La rivincita delle nerd (‘The Revenge of the Nerds’), has investigated the issue of the gender gap in ICT.

“At both European and Italian level, the statistics show that the worst situation in terms of gender balance affects the IT sector. According to She Figures, the triennial European report that monitors gender equity in scientific and technical fields, in 2012 the number of women PhDs in computer science corresponded to only 21% in the European Union. According to the data for 2012, women also trained less than a quarter of the PhDs in 15 countries, while in other countries (including Italy) the portion of women PhDs in the IT sector has even decreased. Italian data reflect overall the European trend in the fields of computer science, computing, electronics and automation, with about 20% of women holding a degree, and 32% holding a PhD (Eurostat data for the year 2013-2014). These data become even more meaningful if we compare them with those related to other scientific disciplines such as medicine or biology (the so-called life sciences), which instead remain a mainly female domain”.

What are the best international practices and some examples of a project useful for closing the gap?

“Gender issues in the field of IT, and more generally in technical fields, are no longer an exotic subject for academic research and the institutional agenda. The most evident proof of this awareness is probably the introduction of gender as a cross-cutting issue within Horizon 2020, the European framework program for research and innovation. In fact, among its general principles, the program aims to achieve gender equity through three specific courses of action: promote gender balance in the composition of research teams; ensure equity between men and women in decision-making processes and integrate gender as a dimension of analysis in research practices. Alongside these far-reaching institutional initiatives, companies and spontaneous groups of women are working to spread the culture of gender equality within the IT professions and, consequently, encourage greater access for women to technical fields. This is a networking and mentorship experience that aims to increase female participation through various initiatives such as seminars, workshops, hackathons and traditional educational programs.

In recent years, we have witnessed the spread of groups and campaigns created to support the aforementioned goals: Anita Borg Institute, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, GNOME Outreachy and Ada Lovelace Day are just some of the initiatives aimed at supporting women in development of IT skills, career advancement and construction of professional profiles in the fields of information technology and engineering, and in encouraging queer people to participate in the activities of free-software and open source communities.

In my book I describe the activities of the communities with which I have come into direct contact: Girls Geek Dinner, Rails Girls, Ubuntu Women, Girls in Tech and NERD Project. Some of these organizations come into being outside Italy, but branch out all over the world – including Italy – through local sections; others are initiatives created and active only in Italy; while still others – like Ubuntu Women – are born as online communities among groups of different countries which organize offline meetings from time to time. These are cases of networks and initiatives aimed at encouraging the presence of women in technical fields, particularly in information technology and engineering”.

In her TED, Giulia Baccarin highlights the problem of the gender gap linked to the development of machine learning. What are the real risks of this situation?

“I think it is an interesting and important topic, and at the same time still little debated with respect to the macroscopic issue of numbers, that is, the imbalance in the presence of men and women. What I try to say and show in the book is that there are many reasons why information technology presents itself as a world that is inhospitable for women and generally have to do with the poor socialization of girls to technology (starting from video games), resistance, gender bias, sexism in the Information Technology (IT) sector, the gender division of labor, and the pervasiveness of stereotypes about the alleged different attitudes of men and women towards scientific subjects. These stereotypes take shape in all technical practices, including technology design and the resulting discriminatory effects. The book contains a large theoretical chapter that illustrates the debate on gender, feminism, science and technology, and the focus of this debate, as far as I am concerned, are the epistemological issues concerning science and technology (and therefore also information technology), that is to say how knowledge is produced, how technical artifacts and digital applications are designed. The professionals I interviewed touch on these problems when they speak of the testosteronic interfaces or the masculine character of Wikipedia, that is, of ways of seeing the relationships between humans and objects, forms of knowledge, different criteria for ordering the world and expressing moral judgments that are inscribed in technical objects. These socio-technical scenarios delegate skills, actions and responsibilities to potential users, thus defining who will be or who could be the users themselves. In this sense, gender inscriptions or uses suggested by an object in terms of gender relations refer to the assumptions and representations of the relationships between masculine and feminine inscribed in the content and form of artifacts. Gender studies of technology design processes reveal how the latter favor or inhibit specific uses by men and women through representation of the user present in the technical conformation of the object. The male character and scarce accessibility of the Wikipedia interface, as well as the testosteronic interface of an operating system, refer to the specific representation of the user in terms of roles and gender identity that would inhibit the participation of and use by women.

This approach suggests an interesting – but still not much used – line of research concerning the study of information systems through the analytical lens of feminist studies on technoscience. And speaking of machine learning, in the book I refer to an article by Alison Adam and Helen Richardson, who address the problem of the relationship between computational models, reasoning and human activities. Taking the Soar project – a cognitive architecture used to solve problems of various kinds – as an example, Adam and Richardson note that the empirical evidence on which the cognitive model implemented in the system developed at Carnegie Mellon University was constructed presents interesting characteristics from the point of view of gender analysis. The examples used in the psychology experiments conducted to design the computer system included symbolic logic, chess, mathematical problems submitted to a small sample of white American men with a college degree. These procedures were considered universal and the results produced were incorporated unto Soar design practices, becoming an influential benchmark for the development of Artificial Intelligence. In line with other critical observations, Adam and Richardson note then that it is problematic to deduce rules of reasoning from mathematical and artificial problems, and that referring to more ordinary questions and tasks (such as summarizing a newspaper article) or including questions of an ethical nature (why should the United States intervene or not in the Gulf War?) could have formed ideas about the general solution of problems in a rather different way..

The issue of the gender gap is therefore closely linked to the development of machine learning applications: a first aspect concerns the absence or weak presence of women (and, more generally, of a diversified composition) in research and development teams, while a second, and consequent, problem concerns the ideal users for whom those applications are designed, consciously or not”.

Speaking of examples to follow, which among the many stories of professional “exclusion” for digital women read and listened to was the one that struck you the most? Why?

“In the book – and in the broader research which gave shape to the book – I deliberately chose to overturn the question of why women remain outside or at the margins of the technical professions of computer science to investigate instead the motivations, personal and professional experiences, and critical points of view of those few that populate the world of computer science. This approach, which focuses on the experience of professionals in a technical field strongly marked by gender imbalances, has in fact allowed me to question the alleged neutrality of the same technical knowledge, an operation that would have been difficult to accomplish if I had kept the focus of analysis only on the dynamics of exclusion.

Having said that, looking at computer science with a historical perspective, in the book I tell the story of the so-called ENIAC Girls, that is, the first women proto-programmers working at ENIAC, the first electronic computer in history built in the USA for multiple purposes (not only military) during the Second World War. That is a case that could be defined as necessary inclusion of women, and of subsequent, progressive exclusion”..

A book to read and 3 women to follow in order to explore further the subject of the digital gender gap?

“If I were to recommend a book on exclusion/inclusion, I would recommend Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing, the recently published book by Marie Hicks. This is a very accurate study that describes the systematic and progressive exclusion of women from work in the British public computer science sector since the 1960s, with the consequent loss of prestige and strength of the sector itself. With particular reference to computer science, texts on the history of technology are very interesting and fundamental for understanding how technical development is not at all a linear process, but socially built and crossed by economic, political and gender relations.

There would be many women to follow, and many of them little known. For example, Jill Dimond and Lilly Irani come to mind. They are two researchers, academics and activists who are concerned with studying and building digital technologies for emancipatory purposes. Jill Dimond has worked on the design and development of Hollaback!, a digital platform and movement created to counteract street harassment (which occurs mostly to the detriment of women and LGBTQ people) and promote free movement in public spaces.

Lilly Irani, on the other hand, has worked on the development of Turkopticon – a digital platform created to allow workers of Amazon Mechanical Turk (the Amazon service that recruits human labor to perform small tasks that computers are not able to perform) – to gather opinions on employers and denounce forms of labor exploitation, allowing workers to create alliances and emerge from the conditions of invisibility in which they find themselves. Hollaback! and Turkopticon are two technologies that inscribe well-defined uses and political values, aimed at combating forms of oppression and discrimination.

Then there are many other women to follow who are a source of encouragement and inspiration: friends, colleagues, professionals and activists. There can be stable and lasting ties or random yet important meetings. I believe they happen and are possible in the life of each and every one: we just have to recognize them and look for them”.

Sonia Montegiove