Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
petermescellany   petermemes


Archives before June 13, 2001

RSS Feed

Adaptive Path (my company!)

About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

Click to see where I wander.

Wish list
Show me you love me by
buying me things.

Track updates of this page with Spyonit. Clickee here.

[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
Reader Favorites
Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

Interface Design
Web Development
Movie Reviews

The more things change... Posted on 12/09/2002.

I'm at the Supernova conference, a digerati meet-up all about exciting technologies and their implications on our future.

And in a room of about 100 people, I count 7 women. (Including Mena and Chris Nolan.)

16 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Can you purchase wisdom?"
Next entry: "Is There A UI Generation Gap?"


In the first year of my undergrad, ten years ago, they were working very hard to recruit women into the sciences and engineering. One of my best friends graduated from physics engineering in the mid-90s and hadn't seen a girl in any of his classes for several years. And I still don't see many women in anything tech-related.

What a quaint "Digerati"! ;)
Posted by Anne @ 12/09/2002 03:32 PM PST [link to this comment]

...sorry, but it's their fault. No one is blocking women from taking courses in Java or operating systems or advanced algorithms. I could also say the same about technical writing--at STC conferences, at least 70% of the attendees are women. Does that mean that women have unfairly locked men out of that profession?
No. It's a profession open to any ex-English major who doesn't have talent to write fiction and instead begrudgingly becomes a technical writer when really she's just a fussy carried away.
The point is, at least in the United States, you can do anything you have the ability to do. So just do it and don't give in to the whining.
Posted by Joe @ 12/09/2002 08:45 PM PST [link to this comment]

It is odd though, don't you think, Joe? You gotta wonder why since as you said "no one's blocking women from taking courses, etc."

I was looking at a snap from doors of perception and didn't really see a lot of women (wasn't there so there could've been a good number). And as I was browsing webword's "userati" I did notice quite a number of males especially at the top there. It just makes me curious as to what the cause is. And, when you are the only female at a meeting of ten or more people, as I've been, it just makes me wonder "now how did that happen?"

I don't think it's limited to hard core programming type gatherings either. I remember being told in grad school that the majority of librarians are women, but the vast majority of library administrators (librarians promoted to management in other words) were men.

It's just weird. I'm sure there's some complex sociological reason for it. But at least if Peter notices things like that, I'll feel a little less like I'm having a kneejerk reaction next time I total the number of females at such an event.
Posted by Tanya @ 12/10/2002 12:34 AM PST [link to this comment]

Hey Joe - with all due respect, do you actually believe that "at least in the United States, you can do anything you have the ability to do."? Please forgive my scepticism, but I think this is a myth ;)

"So just do it and don't give in to the whining."

Maybe more women would "just do it" if they felt they could discuss inequity without being accused of "whining".

It's actually more complicated than that, but like Tanya, I was just heartened to see someone else actually notice...
Posted by Anne @ 12/10/2002 05:37 AM PST [link to this comment]

Hey y'all,

Sorry to sound kneejerk myself. Quick disclaimer: I'm a big supporter of United States Affirmative Action programs, Title IX in sports (I'm a proponent of the view that major league baseball can and should integrate its sexes), and reach-out programs. All I was saying is that nowadays women who go to university DO have a chance to take computer science instead of...what? English lit? I dunno...all I'm trying to say is that it doesn't necesSARily follow that, because seven percent of the audience at the conference were women, the cause for this statistic is an intentional denial of women's rights to pursue careeers.

That's all I was trying to say, ferchrissakes. It's just that I'm sensitive to the post hoc, ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. (and, to ensure no other hard feelings, I wasn't (or at least didn't mean to be) implying that Peter or anyone else HERE was making this logical, causality leap.) Just something I've notice a lot in many other media expressions.

As far as the "whining" comment, that was inspired, to tell you the truth, by my observations of my field/s: tech writers who whine about not being respected by programmers, UEX folks whining about not being respected by programmers or visual designers, and designers whining about having to kowtow to usability consultants. I should know...I'm horrendously guilty often of this crime (See Sorry if I implied that pointing out an inequity is inandofitself whining. Didn't mean that at all. At all. Seriously. Really. Honestly.
Posted by Joe @ 12/10/2002 06:28 AM PST [link to this comment]

The BBC recently discussed Women in Africa learning technology as a trade and Lego robots and learning technology, noting girls having different approaches than boys.
Posted by vanderwal @ 12/10/2002 08:59 AM PST [link to this comment]

Currently entered in Fast Company's "Fast 50" is "GIRL IN CHARGE: At 26 I started a revolution for girls in tech." Rachel Muir,
Founder/CEO/Executive Director, Girlstart, Austin - TX US.
Posted by Anne @ 12/10/2002 12:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

Discrimination doesn't have to be "intentional" for it to be systemic and problematic.

See Ellen Spertus' decade-old (but still very on-target) paper "Why are there so few female computer scientists" as well as Virginia Valian's more recent book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women for an introduction to the complexity of these issues.

(If it matters, I'm female, have a master's in CS, epsilon from a PhD, and I left hardcore research to work on IT policy; one of the reasons, though not the only one, was the growing recognition that CS is not a good place for women.)
Posted by Medley @ 12/10/2002 12:45 PM PST [link to this comment]

COMMENT #9 folks are begging the question instead of dealing with the post hoc issue. It's still a case of causal fallacy...but I'm not gonna fight this fight. Especially when y'all seem to miss my point. I just hope you are having a great time in Japan, Peter. Sounds like fun!

Sorry to start something that's turned into a bad episode of Politically Correct.
Posted by Joe @ 12/10/2002 01:04 PM PST [link to this comment]

I dunno, I asked the guys who came to town here in NYC for Shirky's Social Software Soiree why it had turned into such a sausage-fest, and the question that the conversations kept leading me back to were who *didn't* he invite? Granted, he had a few last-minute no-shows, but if there's nobody to invite, can you blame the organizers?

I didn't talk to Kevin about Supernova, but I'd bet dollars to donuts he went looking for a variety of people to get as speakers. And I bet he was stymied by a lack of choices. Does that mean he just didn't look hard enough?

I can't help but think that the problem, in these two limited cases, are not so much of opportunity but of lack of candidates. I don't think either Kevin or Clay deliberately excluded women from their conferences.
Posted by Anil @ 12/10/2002 01:47 PM PST [link to this comment]

I'm sure they didn't deliberately exclude women, Anil. That's what makes it so odd. Would be easier to understand what's going on if the answer were that simple. (Is there a sociologist in the house?) Guess I'll go have a look at the paper Medley pointed to. Although I'm not sure it's just a CS thing.
Posted by Tanya @ 12/10/2002 02:43 PM PST [link to this comment]

Definitely not just a CS thing -- Valian is a sociologist, IIRC, and takes a broader perspective. Her book is pretty depressing though.
Posted by Medley @ 12/10/2002 07:53 PM PST [link to this comment]

No, it's endemic throughout the scitech arena. It's an area that NSF is very interested in addressing, and there's a whole grant program just addressing the underrepresentation of women and minorities in IT (ITWF -- Information Technology Workforce).

It turns out, though, that relatively small changes in how things like CS are taught (and how admissions into programs are handled) can have a huge impact on the number of women who enter--and stay in--CS/IT programs. Carnegie-Mellon has modified their program, and written about the results in the book "Unlocking the Clubhouse." They've got a web site about what they did, as well.

Sherry Turkle headed up a group that did a very interesting study for AAUW called "Tech Savvy," which has some interesting things to say, as well.

It's an ongoing frustration for me as an IT educator. Our department doesn't lack for role models, but we have distressingly low female enrollment (under 10%), and high attrition. And we do better than our CS colleagues at the same institution.
Posted by Liz @ 12/13/2002 04:04 PM PST [link to this comment]

From the C-M site, in defining their methods: "Codes have been developed on the basis of what students discuss, as well as issues we believe to be salient, based on our prior knowledge and theoretical hunches."

Oh, yeah, "hunches"--the RIGorous scientific method....
Posted by Joe @ 12/14/2002 04:07 PM PST [link to this comment]

I've read the _Clubhouse_ book, and it's really quite interesting. There are some things that make CMU a rare case; thus not all of their solutions are broadly applicable, but there are still many useful things to be learned. I've also talked to a few CMU professors about this study, and what's really fascinating is the change in culture that continues to happen.

As for "codes" -- this is not atypical in analysis of qualitative of data. They also point out that they make regular sweeps through the data and are careful to acknowledge the challenges posed by this type of analysis. The book is not that long at all, so I would recommend at least a skim before dismissing their results out of hand based on one word on a summary webpage.
Posted by Medley @ 12/16/2002 03:55 AM PST [link to this comment]

I can think of many reasons, mostly unintentional, why we are still seeing so few women in sciences, engineering, etc.

1. What your parents do influences you - how many girls have mothers in science etc right now?

2. Schools: in the UK at least, there has been an increasing trend towards mixed secondary schools. Paradoxically, in same-sex schools girls do more science *and* go on to study more science at university (more science teachers and heads of dept. are women so more role models, no 'unladylike' view of science re boys etc etc.), so the trend towards same-sex reduces the presence of girls in science.

3. Childcare - far more women than men are still responsible for this & many women drop out of research etc. during the crucial career-making years. This means they lose out in academia on that relentless career ladder. Women end up being older for the same level of experience.

4. I can tell you it's really off-putting sitting in a lecture theatre of 150 unwashed geeky guys and two women. Who would undergo this voluntarily ;-)

5. Women seem to be less good at playing politics (they tend to concentrate on the job), which is what you need to land the management jobs quickly.

6. Two's a crowd when it comes to women, but not men. In a seminar of four speakers, one woman is considered 'enough', two 'quite enough', and three or four completely out of order (a gaggle of women etc). How come three of four men on a panel is still considered completely normal?

7. Women seem to be less visible than men through being involved in what are deemed to be more specialsed activities or research. Take some examples: Luch Suchman, Diana Forsythe (sadly died), Rosalind Picard, Bonnie Nardi, Geraldine Fitzpatrick, Abigail Sellen, Susan Dray etc. all have had and continue to have a high profile within the profession, (and a host of other names in the UK have too, such as Barbara McManus, Ann Blandford, Rose Luckin....) but generally in fairly distinct, self-contained parts of it, particularly in certain areas of university research. None appear on Userati (Chris?). It could be said "Oh, they're not usability, they're CSCW/interactive learning/workplace ethnography/digital libraries/affective computing" etc etc. And damn good they are at it too.

Ann Light is on Userati primarily through being part-time editor of Usability News (looking at the Google stats). She also just happens to have a PhD and postgraduate teaching in the field too, but without that UN visibility she would probably be in the same boat as the rest.

Yvonne Rogers is a long-time and high-profile person in this field and has written some of the major books too (with Jenny Preece), but I had to ask Chris to put her on the Userati list before she appeared.

The issue is that none of these women are brash, self-promotional, total-picture people, readly to opine on anything and everything for the press, regardless of their expertise or lack of it. Unlike many men with far more modest credentials.

8. In London, meanwhile, recent 'spokespeople' on usability have included Martyn Perks and James Woudhuysen. Neither knows anything about the subject - at all, at all, I've seen them speak on several occasions, and even booed Martyn ;-). They are now 'experts' who get invited along to functions to speak about the subject. However, both of them are prepared to make complete fools of themselves by expressing outrageous, uninformed and unacceptable opinions (the latter with humour, admittedly), at seminars and in the press. Women just don't seem to do that so much.
Posted by Louise Ferguson @ 01/01/2003 09:05 AM PST [link to this comment]

Add A New Comment:


E-Mail (optional)

Homepage (optional)

Comments Now with a bigger box for text entry! Whee!

All contents of are © 1998 - 2002 Peter Merholz.