NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 207-210
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Women, Work and Computing by Ruth Woodfield. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 209 pp., $55.00 hardcover, $20.00 paper.
Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002, 172 pp., $54.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.
The key questions and general problems have been around for several decades: Why are so relatively few women engaged in inventing, creating, and designing computer technology? Why are the percentages of women in computer science classes and majors actually declining? What difference does the near absence of women's voices and ideas in the computer industry make, not only for women (who may be missing out on the educational and economic opportunities offered by the field) and for the health of computing as a discipline, but also for the types of machinery and software being developed? And what can be done about all this?
While touching on all of these questions, these two books look primarily at why relatively few women are involved in computer science education and work. In both cases, the answer is clear that the basic problems are not found in any "deficiencies" in girls and women (such as fear of technology or disinterest). Rather, the problems are in the culture of computing. The authors conclude that basic changes will need to come through internal responsibility for the problems and changes in the institutional culture.
The material in Women, Work and Computing is both less and more than its title might indicate. The focus is on women working in a large international software organization, that is, women in the business of software development, consultancy, and systems integration services. It [End Page 207] is an ethnographic study of gender relations in this particular culture, based in the United Kingdom. It is not a study of women who use computers and computing skills for their work in other areas. Thus, the book is not a study of how computers and computing are changing the work of women, their training, their job possibilities, and earnings, as the title might suggest.
However, Woodfield, a sociologist, not only reports on an empirical study in a software company, but places her analysis in the larger context of British and American research on gender and spatial and temporal disruption, computer-mediated communication, and online gender-bending. She uses her data and her review of many other studies to test the optimistic predictions of those who argue that despite the fact that the computer culture has been a domain of masculinity, computers offer a fundamental and dramatic social change for the future of women. (For a discussion of how locations may produce different computer cultures, see Håpnes and Sørensen's analysis of a Norwegian hacker culture .)
Those who would suggest the possibility of a more genderless universe through new uses of computers argue that the screen allows us to renegotiate old relationships, permitting and encouraging rethinking about our bodies, gender identification, space, time, and historic social inequalities in ways that can have an enduring effect on individuals and society. Focusing on the employees of an international company, the author uses interviews (and the resultant observations) of male and female employees to test this argument. Not only is the company considered a leader in its field, but it is known for an official ideology of being a "people company," where promotion is based on a meritocracy with a worker's gender considered irrelevant.
What Woodfield discovered was that the pathways and successes of the men and the women through the company differed. While the official discourse of meritocracy was well accepted, and provided a framework for talk about the company and for assessments, this company creed did not guarantee equal recognition of women's skills.
Even in the computer age, the conclusion argues, blurring gender lines is impossible in regard to male supervisors' evaluations of employees' abilities. Knowledge continues to be constructed as something that men have. Even in, or perhaps particularly in, a liberal, seemingly flexible work...