Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 48 / MAY 1984 / PAGE 128

Computers And Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor

Computers In The Workplace

I can't remember the exact occasion, but about three years ago my son (who was then seven years old) was being taken to lunch by a friend of mine in downtown Palo Alto. As the two of them walked down the street, my boy looked in the window of an office where he saw a woman typing some correspondence. "What is she doing?" my son asked. "She is typing a letter," my friend replied. At that, my son looked again and said, "That's funny; I thought only men typed."

I thought it was pretty funny too—for a while. My son knows that I spend a lot of time at a keyboard, much of it writing articles and books. In fact, I am happy he sees that keyboards are not the sole domain of female typists, but are becoming increasingly used by men. But any stereotype is dangerous; it is as dangerous for my son to think of men as typists as it is for women to be typecast in that role.

A Difference In Use

As I thought about the incident some more, it became apparent that there was perhaps a distinction in the ways that keyboards were being used by men and women, especially in business. In most businesses it appears that male keyboard users are using spreadsheet programs, or performing other analytical or forecasting activities with computers, while the majority of women employees are using keyboards connected to nothing more sophisticated (or career-enhancing) than an electric typewriter. In general, it appears that men compute and women type.

David Thornburg is an author and speaker who has been heavily involved with the personal computer field since 1978. His main interest is in making computers responsive to people's needs. He is the inventor of the KoalaPad graphics tablet and is the author of nine books about programming. His recent series Computer Art and Animation (Addison-Wesley) includes four books on Logo for the Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack and TI computers. Discovering Apple Logo (Addison-Wesley) shows how Logo can be used as a tool for exploring the art and pattern of nature. He has been called "an enthusiastic advocate for a humanistic computer revolution," and his editorial opinions have appeared in COMPUTE! since its inception.

Because those who compute tend to earn more than those who type, it is worth exploring the potential of the business computer in eliminating sex-stereotyped jobs. I refer to sex stereotypes rather than discrimination because, as we shall see, a good portion of the job-selection process is induced by the very people who end up perpetuating the stereotype of women as typists.

No Access To The Professions

It is one of my pleasures to spend part of my time as a teacher. Sometimes my students range from third to sixth grade, and other times they are first-year graduate students in product design. In my graduate classes, I will often have only four or five women among my 40 students. Since product design is among the more "artsy" of the engineering fields, you would expect this number to be higher (assuming that you believe women are more interested in the arts than men).

In fact, I find it quite disappointing that there's such a small percentage of women. But the reasons for it are not hard to discern. In order to gain entrance to graduate school in an engineering field, students must have majored in engineering or the physical sciences in college. This, of course, requires a very solid background in mathematics.

As I look at the younger children I sometimes work with, I find that many of the girls are turned off to mathematics by the time they reach fourth grade, and that those who are not turned off have spent time with teachers who have a deep love and understanding of mathematics themselves. The mathphobia that sets in at an early age has a significant destructive power.

To allow any group to consider itself incapable of mastering mathematics is to essentially deny that group access to the professions. For whatever reasons, most of the high-paying technical, business, and medical professions require a significant number of advanced mathematics courses in college.By allowing some of our youngsters to become math illiterate, we are confining them to the lower end of the wage scale years before they seek their first jobs.

Working In A Man's Field

Unfortunately, mathematics is generally considered a man's field. In an attempt to counter this perception, Teri Perl wrote a book several years ago that should be on the shelves of every bookstore in the nation. This book is Math Equals (Addison-Wesley), a brief history of women in mathematics. Rather than presenting a dry historical treatise, Teri Perl portrays the women of her study as complete human beings and talks about their frustrations of being good in a man's field when they were expected instead to tend to matters of the home.

Of all the people who should read this book, among the most important would be the teachers of grammar school who pass on their own frustration and fear of mathematics to their female students, who in turn embrace them as their own.

But what does mathphobia have to do with men using computers while women type? The answer can be found in a myth that is as wrong as the belief that women aren't good at mathematics—that you need to be good at math in order to use computers. I would venture a guess that many of you are "good at computers," but are probably not "good at math." You already know that mathematics is not a prime requisite for computer literacy. And yet you are viewing the problem from the other side of the bridge—you have already made the passage.

Reinforcing The Myth

Imagine the plight of the woman with a degree in the arts or the humanities who wants to find a job in business. When offered an opportunity to learn about computers, many women say, "Oh, I couldn't learn how to use computers, I never was good at math"; or "I never was good at technical subjects." By making statements of this sort, these women are removing themselves from career paths that lead to high-paying jobs.

Because these fears are, in fact, unfounded, those who express them are allowing the persistence of a myth to restrict their professional growth.

While I don't know a sure-fire way to break through to people who hold themselves back in this way, two authors have done a marvelous job in trying to show working women the road to computer confidence and higher-paying jobs.

These authors are Dorothy Heller and June Bower, and their book is Computer ConfidenceA Woman's Guide, published by Acropolis Books ($9.95 paperback). Because of the timeliness of its topic and its lucid style, this book deserves a wide readership. You could do your community a favor by seeing that your local bookstore has plenty of copies in stock.

A Highly Personal Book

As women who entered the computer field from backgrounds in the humanities, the authors have the rare perspective of those who have walked both sides of the street. The book is a highly personal account; in fact, it is the book they wish they had had (but couldn't find) when they entered the computer field. Topics range from a short history of women who "made it big" in computers, to case histories of working women who use computers without knowing how to solve partial differential equations. By blending case histories with enough technical data to make the reader a savvy shopper for computer technology the authors prepare the reader for the main goal of the book: to show women how they can enter career paths with unlimited upward potential.

This assistance covers the spectrum from worksheets to help the reader identify appropriate career choices, to practical tips on how to handle job interviews, and especially how to handle the inevitable objections that arise when the interviewer finds that the educational and work background of the applicant doesn't include the "right" degrees from the "right" schools.