Women & Technology: E-Mentoring

Women & Technology: The Gritty Past

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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,"

she says.

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

focus on."

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:

Offer mentoring programs that pair women in the industry

with those at the university level. MentorNet (see story below) is

one way to foster these relationships.

Emphasize a well-rounded view of technology, that shows

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.

Encourage networking groups.

Cultivate a family-friendly image of scientists and engineers.

"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."

Business as usual, she adds, has had a male way of doing things.

"The way things are done has to be expanded, to be more open and

more collaborative."

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Women & Technology: E-Mentoring

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

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Women & Technology: The Gritty Past

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

per minute.

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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