Saturday, July 5, 2014

Women's Magazines

Our family gave a gift subscription of the New Yorker Magazine to our primary care physician so that we would be guaranteed an interesting reading experience while waiting for our appointment. As a consequence, we have become acutely aware of the available reading materials in other doctors' waiting rooms.

Recently, I visited a dominantly-female waiting room where I discovered the magazines there were: Self, Glamour, Elle, and one huge 916-page issue of Bazaar. It was the Bazaar spring fashion issue, loaded with beautiful, skinny models in this year's "must have" colors and cuts. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs never were so massive!  As I thumbed through the pages of picture after picture of near-starved models, I wondered how women could not possibly be intimidated and overwhelmed by this overdose of fashion.

I had an urge to bring in my own copies of Fortune, Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, or National Geographic just to show women what magazines with real WORDS looked like.

Since then, I have become acutely aware of magazines available to women and how they present the world of opportunities to them - young and mature alike. I walked by a newsstand and discovered that fully 60% of the display was dedicated to the limiting range of women's needs: how to dress to attract a man, how to use make-up to attract a man, how to lose weight to attract a man, how to cook to attract a man.

We express concern that girls and young women are not attracted to, or interested in, fields which we know will contribute to their secure, financially-rewarding, and intellectually-satisfying future. These fields, generally, are described as STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math - or at least professions which have these knowledge bases at their foundation.

The latest efforts in this area seek to entice young girls and women into computer science classes where they currently constitute a startling 1% of the headcount. The newest initiative, by non-profits following the lead of $50 million in funding from Google, is called Made With Code. The theme of this initiative is to persuade young girls that "programming is fun" using such examples as learning how to use a 3D printer to produce bracelets and other jewelry. Or, how to program computers to design and fabricate dresses or jeans.

Seemingly irrelevant to these efforts are the facts that women were the programmers instrumental in calculating trajectories used on board ships and by artillery in the field during World War II; a woman (Admiral Grace Hopper) led the effort to design the first business programming language (COBOL); a woman was instrumental in the founding of scientific computing (Ada Lovelace); a woman was the founder of telecommuting (Dame V.S. Shirley); women "computers" were responsible for the identification, location, and measurement of our inventory of stars - a key aspect of the origins of astrophysics; a woman (Anita Borg) was instrumental in building a fault-tolerant Unix operating system (a core component of most academic and many government computing systems today); a woman (Donna Dubinsky) was one of the co-founders of Palm Computing Co., the first hand-held personal digital assistant; a woman (Dr. Anita K. Jones) was instrumental in the early development of computer security systems within DARPA, the same entity that developed the Internet; and a woman (Ayah Bdeir) founded and is CEO of littleBits, an innovative systems hardware design business that offers an easy to use electronic construction toolkit to build electronic circuits using an extensive modular electronics library.

The Anita Borg Institute documents literally hundreds of other women role models in the field of technology and all of its related scientific professions. Rather than build on that magnificent foundation of exemplary women in computer science leadership, Made With Code advocates have decided that the best way to get women to address complex contemporary social, economic, and technical problems is to teach young girls how to make bracelets with computers, scanners and 3D peripheral equipment that cost upwards of $1,000 a pop.

Perhaps we might start by re-thinking how we teach young girls to envision their future. Could we teach them to view a future that revolves around THEIR accomplishments, rather than as an appendage to either a spouse or a family? Could we possibly teach them to view the world as an empty slate or screen on which THEY might write the solutions to substantive problems they encounter, rather than sit back and demand that someone else make it easy for them? Perhaps we need to toss them on some figurative desert island where they have to discover for themselves how to solve the problems they encounter using only the resources that surround them. Perhaps that figurative island is a hack-a-thon where they take what skills they have acquired in real programming courses and collaborate with other team-members to build an application they are willing to have judged by adults as meaningful products addressing important issues.

Young women can do this. There are stellar examples of young women of achievement succeeding in the Intel Science Fair, one of many competitions where the best and the brightest in science, engineering, and technology are acknowledged and rewarded.  Our expectations of young girls and women, as they make their educational and career choices, today, are crucial in determining which path they will follow. Will they follow a path that fills their closets and minds with clothes, trinkets, and the superficial trappings that advertisers want them to buy or will they follow a path that fills their minds with the wonders of the universe and confidence in their appropriate role in the discovery of its truths, opportunities, and solutions?

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