Gender, personality, and social software

"I feel like I'm at a Microsoft monastery here," wrote Rory Blyth from the most recent Professional Developers Conference. "I think I've seen about 2.5 females ... it's like they're an endangered species." The observation holds equally true for open source conferences.
If we expect social software to help rewrite the productivity equation, social skills and protocols become critical parts of the game. How can social software succeed if, in its development, half the population is so poorly represented? [Full story at]
This column touches on two third-rail issues: personality and gender. The Wired article on Asperger's syndrome cited in the column was incorrectly dated, by the way. My error: it was of course published in 2001, not 1991. That slipped past me and my editors, but my friend Larry Welkowitz, a psychologist and AS specialist, caught it.

I'm not a social scientist or a psychologist, and I was reluctant to touch either of these controversies. (As you might imagine, the column provoked some internal discussion at InfoWorld.) In the end I decided to go ahead precisely because both subjects make me uncomfortable.

The larger of the two issues, in my mind, is that of gender. Nobody seems to have any real answers, but here are some perspectives on gender and computing:

The percentage decline in computer science was much larger among women (51 percent) than among men (28 percent) from 1985 to 1995. [National Science Foundation]
Programming assignments are many times devoid of meaning and importance to people's lives, which tends to appeal more to boys. Girls, on the other hand, will be more attracted to technology, if it has some meaning or positive purpose in a real-world context. [Heather Makoski: Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics]
Girls and women are choosing, consciously or subconsciously, not to go into or stay in computer science. While one cannot rule out the possibility of some innate neurological or psychological differences that would make women less (or more) likely to excel in computer science, I found that the cultural biases against women's pursuing such careers are so large that, even if inherent differences exist, they would not explain the entire gap. [Ellen Spertus: Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?
On my way to work this morning I was listening to NPR, as I usually do, and heard a segment on the declining numbers of female students entering the computer science major. I'm sure they are correct in their observation that the numbers are indeed declining, I'm not going to argue that. I am however finding myself disagreeing with their reasoning behind this decline. One thing in particular that I felt was an erronous conclusion.. the amount of time young boys spend playing video games as opposed to young girls. I do agree that most video games are geared towards boys, I don't agree that this has anything to do with the probability of a child's future interest in computer science. [kasia in a nutshell
Additionally, for many females, computers are more meaningful and compelling if they are able to link them with other fields and are able to keep computer science's social context in mind. Margolis and Fisher (2002) call this appeal "computing with a purpose." However, computer science curricula has traditionally been oriented on the basis of the fascinations of male students, and the aspects of computers that females find interesting may not be emphasized. This lack of emphasis on certain characteristics may discourage women, allowing them to feel computers "aren't for them." [Maria Enderton: Honors Thesis, Women in Computer Science]
It's funny that Jon has written an article on social networking addressing the geek male perspective, when I've been thinking quite a bit lately that some of the best minds regarding efforts behind Social Networking are actually female. They just get the importance of relationships much better than guys. [Digital Squeeze]

I'd be interested in comments on these issues.

On a related note, I'm working on a story about enterprise social software. What that label means is, of course, open to discussion. If you're developing and/or using what you think of as enterprise social software, and want to talk about it, feel free to ping me.

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