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On Girls, Boys, and IT Careers


A couple of weeks ago, there was a totally fabulous talk at Google: Dr. Cornelia Brunner of the Center for Children and Technology spoke about gender and technology. Fascinating and compelling stuff, and now you can all see what she had to say by watching the recording of her talk on Google Video: "On Girls, Boys, and IT Careers."

I knew I was going to enjoy the talk when Dr. Brunner pointed out in her first slides that she was not talking about biological ideas of "female" and "male"; that she was instead talking about the socially constructed notions of "feminine" and "masculine," but that it's easy to slip into thinking of those as female and male if you use those terms, so for this talk she was going to use the terms "femme" and "butch" instead. This is the first time I've ever heard anyone use "butch" and "femme" in the context of technology, and though in later discussion she acknowledged that the terms aren't quite perfect for what she's talking about, I think they're nonetheless very useful.

A bunch of us stuck around and talked with her for another half-hour after the talk, but sadly, that part wasn't recorded.

Anyway, she's an excellent and dynamic speaker, with a lot of great things to say. I highly recommend taking the time to watch this if you have any interest in this stuff.

Thanks much to Rebecca S for bringing her to speak!


Cool talk!

Dr. Brunner seemed to imply that the butches and femmes of 20 years ago were equally accurate in predicting our modern world, but I think it was the femmes who nailed it -- we got (small, dispersed, connective, useful) amulets, not (transendent, bionic, overpowering) magic wands.

That might even suggest that most of how Golden Age SF got future tech history wrong is attributable to butch infatuations.

It also occurs to me that, not only is much of what's new and hot in IT *products and services* femme (communications, sharing, openness) but femme IT *processes* (agile development, extreme programming) trump butch ones. The butch account of career history ("I always knew my course") sounds like a waterfall projectl; the femme account ("we wandered here, and it all worked out") sounds like an agile project.

My job is such an odd mixture of butch and femme. I find I kind of relish dysfunctional organizational politics, as it gets me away from the keyboard and into the morass of human emotions and interpersonal relations. I enjoy debugging those as much as I enjoy debugging code.

Thanks, that was a very cool talk! Yeah, the butch/femme distinction is critical, and one that I'd never made in that context. It will change how I think about a lot of things. I'm a classic example of the butch female who's often put in role-model-ish situations, and I didn't have this particular set of words to articulate how I felt that I was only reaching the small minority. Especially useful for me given that I'm chair of our CS department Focus on Women in Computer Science committee, and had been feeling burnt out about it. And I just finished teaching intro programming for the first time (I usually teach upper-division courses), and had this feeling of not-connecting to many of the students, especially the female ones, but not knowing what to do about it. Not that I have the answers, but I have a new vocabulary with which to think...

And, just to have my little butch moment - ooh, cool, I like the Google Videos interface :)

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