Sunday, March 2, 2008

women get whacked

Sexism, like racism, is not always palpable in a way people can easily grasp. Its corrosiveness is hard to calculate but studies done by places like the Department of Housing can help quantify the issue. Every few years, the DOH sends out undercover “loan applicants” who list the same income, similar profession, credit rating etc. and whose only difference is race. Decade after decade, these studies prove the insidiousness and deep-seated racism in this country -- blacks are turned down or offered less attractive loans compared to their white counterparts. Similar studies have been done with women and resumes. Call yourself a man and you stand a better chance of getting a job.

But this week, I felt as if I was assaulted by some disturbing attacks on women in the media, even when the story purported to do the opposite. And I am not here to defend the candidacy of Hillary Clinton – I voted Obama (speaking out against the war at that time was a brave thing to do). However, I do regret some of what she has had to endure.

For example, last week New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd chastised Hillary for not taking a “sewing circle” approach to reaching women. Hillary was too, well, macho on Capitol Hill.

Then Sixty Minutes served up a winner about Happiness in which a Harvard instructor cited a study claiming that women in America have an antipathy toward their children not found in European mothers. Specifically, American moms don’t enjoy spending time with their children. The reason? According to the Sixty Minutes version of the story, they love their children as much as European women, but they tend to try to work on the computer or talk on the phone or multi-task when they should be hanging out with their kids. This time-management conflict was supposed to lead to frustration and unhappiness.

Yet the show offered no mitigating information – that European countries offer inexpensive childcare alternatives, that American women have none of the financial safety nets that exist in Europe (the little welfare system we had was destroyed under Bill Clinton), that American women are often expected to spend more hours performing household chores compared to their partners. I’ll let you judge the level of sexism in the clip – I can only say it antagonized me.

Finally, in another piece entitled "Geek Chic" in the New York Times, what appears to be a feministic piece about teenage girls dominating the blogosphere suddenly morphs into paragraphs with terrifyingly underhanded sexism. First the reporter points out that “[A] study published in December by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that among Web users ages 12 to 17, significantly more girls than boys blog (35 percent of girls compared with 20 percent of boys) and create or work on their own Web pages (32 percent of girls compared with 22 percent of boys). Girls also eclipse boys when it comes to building or working on Web sites for other people and creating profiles on social networking sites (70 percent of girls 15 to 17 have one, versus 57 percent of boys 15 to 17)”.

But the piece quickly undermines this initial argument when it goes on to explain that girls are on the web really because they just want to talk about themselves to their friends! So while it starts out with the idea that hey, girls CAN use a computer, by the end we are left with the portrait of the gossipy girl who uses her blog like she used to use the princess phone. It even paraphrases a respected UCLA researcher, Jane Margolis. “Ms. Margolis emphasized the profound distinction between using existing software and a desire to invent new technology.”

Consider another Margolis quote and you can imagine what she really told the NYTimes reporter. “We found that very early on computing is claimed as male territory. At each step from early childhood through college, computing is both actively claimed as ‘guy stuff’ by boys and men (and parents), and passively ceded by girls and women. The claiming is largely the work of a culture and society that links interest and success with computers to boys and men.”

Here’s another bit of data from Margolis to put this in context:
“Among the 1999 recipients of computer science bachelor degrees from Ph.D. granting institutions in the US and Canada, only 4% were African-American and 4% Latino/a. Such low numbers are found elsewhere, as African-American and Latino/a students together make up less than 7% of the high school advanced placement computer science test-takers nationwide. In 1999, only 7 California African-American female high school students took the AP CS exams (out of a total of 455 female test takers), 24 African-American males (out of 2501 males), 21 Mexican-American females and 52 Mexican-American males.”

In keeping with the trend this week, I have to note similar insipidity in Steven Levy’s book, Hackers. C'mon - it was 1994 when he wrote, “The sad fact was that there never was a star-quality female hacker. No one knows why. There were women programmers and some of them were good, but none seemed to take hacking as a holy calling the way Greenblatt, Gosper and the others did. Even the substantial cultural bias against women getting into serious computing does not explain the utter lack of female hackers”.

The same year that Levy was permanently inscribing his ignorance, Jo Sanders, project director at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the CUNY Graduate Center was running a Computer Equity Expert Project. After training 200 k-12 educators how to encourage girls to persist in computing (and math and science) she found:

* The Pascal programming-language course in a Virginia high school saw girls' enrollment rise from none before the project to half the class after it.

* In a computer lab in a New York middle school, the ratio of girls to boys went from 2:25 to 1:1.

* Girls' enrollment in an elective computer science class in Oklahoma rose from none to 31 percent.

* A computer programming class in a Colorado high school went from 15 percent to 30 percent female.

* Girls' free-time use of computers doubled in a school in Washington, D.C.

(Margolis, a professor in Education at UCLA is also trying to teach educators how to retain girls and women in their classes.)

Unfortunately, "Geek Chic" was written in a way that undermined the real story here – teenage girls' familiarity with website codes like html should have been trumpeted as indicative that educators are starting to win their equity battle without OBJECTIFYING them.

I end on a personal note: I took the Flash I and II courses offered by Annenberg this past two weeks. The first session had approximately fifteen students and was dominated by women. At the end of the first day, the female instructor told everyone that the upcoming Flash II was going to be coding and therefore extremely difficult when in fact it wasn't. Only three people showed up for the second session, including myself. All were women.

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