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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Technology - a woman's thing

The other day I was invited to suggest more women speakers for the SHiFT conference in Lisbon to take place in September.

Even though I had a million things on during that day, it doesn't explain why I didn't find it easy to immediately locate potential women speakers. And that got me wondering why I imagine that technology is a woman's thing.

Well, I have three sisters. The youngest is a senior interactive designer for the BBC website. She's a rare designer in that she was once an expert HTML coder. My other sister, since ever, has been installing computer hardware and software for large companies in UK and providing backup technical support. Years ago my third sister used to be a software developer for a company in Australia, but living now in the sticks outside Mombasa doesn't have access to Internet.

And of course, there was my mum. She had her personal webpage up before I had even heard of the Internet. Those were the days before Front Page - and when I look at what she did with photos, wallpaper and blanking out my face (*) I'm just gob-smacked at what she was doing ten years ago.

(*) Historic note: I was horrified at her for putting a photo of me on a WEB page, so she compromised by blanking out my face!

In fact my mum picked up her initial technology skills from me. Twenty-four years ago (gasp) I had an ALTOS computer with WordStar (and no mouse, of course) and my mum wanted to learn to use it. Separated from my dad she had made a big step going to live in UK and was looking for work. It was tough as her only work experience was as a telephonist for the Kenya police during the time of the Mau Mau in the 1950's. In her late 40's in Britain she didn't feel like she had much to offer. But she had put in a job application for a secretarial job which required good knowledge of WordStar. WordStar was an early word processing software, which she knew nothing about - so she came to stay with me so I could teach her. I was pregnant at the time and I will never forget us at the computer, me starting labour, and mum crying: "No, not yet Beverly, I've got to know know how to use WordStar first!"

Well, she did get the job and over the years moved on from there, eventually working for the British Red Cross in Devon, responsible for their office management and technologies.

None of us were trained in technologies - we all just fell into it. My designer sister studied as an artist, my technology sister studied child-care and sign-language, and the other trained in life experience. I'm in social sciences. When we get together - and stay away from political arguing - we talk people, food, cooking, clothes, sports and books - not technology.

So, I guess it's hardly surprising that in my mind - using and experimenting with technology has all the familiarity, warmth and tension of being a women's thing. That just seems obvious!



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