Corrections or additions?
These articles by Melinda Sherwood were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 21,
1999. All rights reserved.
Women & Technology: A Holistic Approach
High tech companies need to adopt a more "holistic"
approach to Information Technology if they want to grow in the 21st
century, says C. Dianne Martin, a program director with the
National Science Foundation. "All the political, economic, and
cultural issues are becoming as important as broadband, the techie
stuff," she says. "In the IT workforce, they’re saying they
don’t need computer science majors necessarily, but a person who has
a liberal arts degree, who has broader experience solving problems."
As a result of its rather narrow scope, the computer science industry
has alienated the large pool of talented women in science, Martin
says. "Men have got caught up in the techiness of it," she
says. "It’s not that women aren’t likely to do that, but women
tend to have a more holistic view: `I’m inventing this new device,
who’s it going to help, who’s it going to harm?’"
A 30-year veteran of the computer industry, Martin presents her observations
on "Paradigms, Pitfalls, and the Pipeline: Gender Issues in the
IT Workforce," at the International Symposium on Technology and
Society on Friday, July 30, at 3:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency, New
Brunswick. The three-day symposium, entitled "Women and Technology:
Historical, Societal and Professional Perspectives" and hosted
by Rutgers University and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics
Engineering (IEEE), begins Thursday, July 29. Cost: $375. Call 732-932-1066.
Martin received a BA in mathematics from Western Maryland College,
Class of 1965, and later taught computer science at both the University
of Maryland and George Washington University, where she eventually
earned a PhD in education. When Martin was hired and trained as a
programmer by IBM in the 1960s, women made up roughly 40 percent of
her training class. By the time the ’80s rolled around, however, women
were rapidly disappearing from the computer industry.
"The numbers tell us there’s some kind of issue here," she
says. "It isn’t like it’s an entrenched field that has been dominated
by men for hundreds of years. Modern computing started in 1940s, during
the war years, when men were out fighting wars so women had to wear
hats that they wouldn’t normally wear. It’s a field that should have
been open to women. We need hundreds of thousands more people who
need technical computer training, so why are we not attracting women?"
Take a look at the poster "boy" for computer science —
the engineer who spends 80 to a 100 hours a week obsessively hacking
at the computer — and you can see why, says Martin. "About
every 10 years computer science departments revise the curriculum,
and in the ’90s, they decided that they would define it in terms of
engineering, math and science," she says. "By putting those
paradigms on it, you immediately thrust it into a male-dominated world."
What other paradigms might universities have chosen? "If you consider
the computer to be a cultural artifact," says Martin, "you
could have put it under anthropology and or sociology. If computing
could have been cast in a broader way, in not only dealing with the
engineering of devices, but also the interaction of those devices
within work environments, it would have appealed to more women,"
Those are the very issues that Martin emphasizes in the computer industry
at large. As chair of the Computers and Society interest group within
the Association for Computer Machinery (http://www.acm.org),
she helped establish a code of ethics that dictates how and why engineers
develop new products and programs. "I’ve always been interested
in the softer side of technology," she says. "In some ways
it’s made it harder to get tenure and things like that because I wasn’t
perceived as a hardcore computer person. The fact that I was able
to express my interest in computer science in broader ways — the
educational impact — that’s why I stayed."
One of the ACM’s mission is to promote computer programs that don’t
simply replace workers or dumb-down the labor force. "The trend
has been towards de-skilling, rather than enhancing," she says,
citing the McDonald’s picture cash register as a perfect example.
"There was a different way we could have introduced technology
and allowed people to keep their jobs," she says. "If we consider
the human capital to be the most valuable, then that’s what we should
Businesses can start by developing a more humanistic approach to IT
and engineering, and by fostering the kind of work environment that
appeals to the talented pool of women out there. She suggests businesses
take these steps:
with those at the university level. MentorNet (see story below) is
one way to foster these relationships.
the social impact of technology, not just product development. Universities
need to build stronger liberal arts programs in computer science,
and businesses need to consider hiring more liberal arts majors.
"Don’t glorify obsessive hackers," says Martin. "If women
are going to be interested, they need to have accommodations for the
fact that they want to have a family."
"The way things are done has to be expanded, to be more open and
Mentoring can be one of the best ways to recruit new
talent in engineering and science, but until recently, it’s become
something of a lost art. Peg Boyle Single saw an opportunity
to revive the age-old tradition using electronic networking. She created
MentorNet (http://www.mentornet.net), a non-profit organization
that pairs women studying science and engineering with leading women
in similar professions. So far, Single has recruited mentors from
200 companies, including IBM, Texaco, and Microsoft. "They have
very demanding jobs, and most can’t hop into cars and meet a student
for lunch, so this gives them an opportunity to connect with the next
Single presents "Lessons learned from Electronic Communities for
Women Engineers," on Thursday, July 29, at 10:30 a.m. at the Technology
Symposium (see above story). At 1:30 p.m. she the joins executive
director of MentorNet, Carol Muller, to discuss "Leveraging Technology
to Increase the Numbers of Women in Engineering and Science."
MentorNet has been a full-time experiment for Single, who holds a
BA in accounting from George Washington University, Class of 1985.
Unlike most of her clients, Single is not an engineer; she studied
mentoring while preparing for her PhD in social psychology at Stony
Brook. "The mentoring background pulled me into electronic mentoring,"
she says, "and the boom in technology allows us to tap into a
whole new pool."
Last year Single paired 500 students with mentors, and expects to
match twice as many next year. From MentorNet’s four-person office
in San Jose, California, Single weeds through resumes, pairing student
with professionals, and provides training for new mentors. Only university-enrolled
students are eligible for a mentor. The mentors have to show references
before they are paired. Princeton University and Stevens Institute
are members of MentorNet.
Since women are so under-represented in the fields of science and
engineering, it’s an obvious advantage for the developing student.
But Single says mentors learn a lot from the teaching relationship,
as well. "It’s a nice opportunity for them to reflect on their
careers," she says, "and rejuvenate why they decided to go
into engineering science."
— Melinda Sherwood
It’s not a treatment HMOs are willing to pay for today,
but until the 1920s, massaging women to orgasm was considered a viable
medical treatment for female "hysteria." When they could,
doctors pushed such drudgery off on midwives, but the therapeutic
stimulation of the female genitalia was such a lucrative business
(patients were sure to return) that new technologies were born to
enhance customer service.
It is thus that women developed an "intimate" relationship
with electronics, a relationship that Rachel Maines chronicles
in her book "The Technology of Orgasm: `Hysteria,’ the Vibrator,
and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction," by Johns Hopkins University
Press (1999, $21). Maines first submitted the contents of her book
to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE)
in 1988. They thought it was a hoax. A decade later the IEEE is hosting
the controversial scholar and author on Friday, July 30, at 10:30
a.m. at the Technology Symposium at the New Brunswick Hyatt (see stories
An angry but educated feminist coming of intellectual age during the
1970s, Maines stumbled on the buried history of the vibrator while
trying to write a "serious needlework history come hell or high
water." Flipping through the turn-of-the-century Women’s Home
Companion, Maines’ eyes wandered to large ads selling household appliances
like blenders, fans, and yes…the electronic vibrator. "When
I saw advertisements as early as 1906 for equipment strongly resembling
the devices now sold to women as masturbation aids, my first thought,"
she writes, "was that this could not possibly be the purpose of
the appliances sold in the pages of the Companion."
This was the exact intent of the device, but long-held medical beliefs
and a stubborn perception of sex obscured its "sexual" nature.
Doctors started diagnosing women with "female hysteria" as
early as 1653. It was probably symptomatic of a social, rather than
physical disease, Maines writes. "When marital sex was unsatisfying,"
she writes "and masturbation discouraged or forbidden, female
sexuality, I suggest, asserted itself through one of the few acceptable
outlets: the symptoms of hyster-neurasthenic disorders." Sexual
frustration, to put it simply.
Since it didn’t fit the paradigm of sex at the time, stimulation of
female genitalia was considered nothing more than a medical chore
necessary to bring the hysteric behavior to a climax and rid it from
the body. "Since no penetration was involved," she writes,
"believers in the hypothesis that only penetration was sexually
gratifying to women could argue that nothing sexual could be occurring
when their patients experienced the hysterical paroxysm during the
treatment." Genital stimulation, doctors argued, was the next
best thing to a horseback ride or journey in a bumpy train.
Female therapy received an injection of steampower at the beginning
of the 20th century. The devices, illustrated in Maines’ book, appear
in varied shapes and sizes, but the Cadillac of vibrators (it cost
$200 in 1904) was a footpowered model with various tendrils and oscillators
that look nothing short of alien. The vibrator entered its halcyon
days with the advent of electricity, which enabled up to 7,000 pulses
As Maines’ research and lecturing progressed, it became clear that
her days teaching were numbered. She was forced out of a part-time
position teaching at Clarkson University in northern New York by a
nervous administration. Even the technical advisory board of the IEEE,
to which she submitted her study in 1988, thought she was out to "titillate
rather than enlighten."
Maines has since run her own business, Maines and Associates, that
provides cataloging, inventory and research services to museum and
archives. Ten years ago, uptight critics misinterpreted her historical
work. Today, however, Maines’ ego has been massaged on more than one
occasion by writers at the New York Observer, and the New York Times.
She has offered proof that technology is sexy after all.
— Melinda Sherwood
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