Mar. 24th, 2010

helenic: (sappho with laptop)

At Women's Question Time last week the first question was about the lack of statues commemorating the achievements of women. The audience struggled to think of any. Boudicca, okay. Queen Victoria, yes, although the female figures around her representing abstract virtues don't really count. Queen Caroline. Florence Nightingale. Umm ... we ground to a halt as we realised how many of the commemorative statues in London, male or female, celebrate military achievement. The historical exclusion of women from this sphere (unless you're a Queen or Empress) obviously doesn't help the disproportionate lack of depictions of great women in our public streets and squares.

Many of those present felt that it would be more appropriate to celebrate non-military achievements. We started brainstorming female candidates. Ada Lovelace was one of the first; I had my hand up to name her when she was mentioned. She was the first computer programmer, a brilliant mind, one of the first female members of the Meteorological Society, and if you fangirl her as much as me, you'll love Sydney Padua's remarkable steamgeek webcomic The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage:

A gaping hole in your life of which you were hitherto unaware )

With a certain amount of irony, I don't have time to write a blogpost dedicated to a role model of women in tech, because this morning I was finishing an article about the role of online engagement and social media in the future of policing (please do read it, it took me nearly a week to write) and in about twenty minutes I am dashing out to the Stop Disconnection Demo against the Digital Economy Bill, in attempt to prove the Peer who allegedly said "it's not as if people will protest outside Parliament" wrong. My comment on the bill, The Chilling Effect, is rapidly becoming one of the most-read pieces on Police State, which feels weird when it was only my second piece of tech journalism - the first being Google Buzz opts out of privacy.

I'm a geek: I know XHTML, CSS and some Javascript; I spend my whole life online; I maintain three or four blogs, four twitter accounts, and I'm a partner in a web development company. I've been messing around with computers my entire life, thanks to a dad who encouraged me to do so and built my own machines out of parts. I'm still more nervous of hardware than software - I haven't put together a computer myself yet without help - but I'm rapidly filling in the gaps in my culturally-narrowed knowledge, catching up on my sci-fi reading and adding technology feeds to my ever-growing list. I still feel as if I'm blagging it half the time. I sat down with [ profile] steerpikelet last Friday as she stressed about an article on the Digital Economy Bill she needed to write, and dredged my memory for a rundown of the biggest issues. I could only do this because I'd written about it myself the previous week, but I recognised myself in [ profile] steerpikelet's (unjustified, I might add) lack of confidence when it comes to writing about tech.

I come across this all the time: smart, geeky women who live online and have lots to say about politics and equality and education and civil rights and gender and sexuality, but who quail when confronted with a topic they consider too techy. It's the result of centuries of rejection and brainwashing and it's bollocks, of course. Law is way more complicated and difficult than technology, and we all cheerfully opine about that. But I sympathise.

Yesterday morning I went to a web marketing seminar at the British Library, organised by She's Ingenious. Alison Rothwell and Cally Robson spoke to a group of twenty entrepreneurs (all female but one - guess who talked the most) about developing their businesses for the web. As a webdesigner I was there in a somewhat sneaky capacity - I didn't expect to learn much from the talk, but I hoped to learn a lot from the responses to it, in working out what my clients need to know and how best to communicate with them. I managed to hand out some cards, answer some questions, and it was fascinating being one of the three women in a room considered to be tech-literate by an audience who, for the most part, considered themselves dumb amateurs. Alison Rothwell delighted me by encouraging them to build their own sites on, and I suggested some sites for downloading themes and plugins. Of course sometimes you need to hire the services of an expert, but WP is fantastically easy to use, and if I could teach myself how to make websites, so could these brilliant, inspired women launching their own products and services. But I couldn't help wonder if the proportion of attendees stating a complete lack of knowledge or confidence would have been the same at a male-dominated event.

That confidence, though - to stand up as a someone who knows what they're talking about - still comes hard, in politics, business and tech. I am aware throughout my performance how easier it would be if I'd been taught these modes of interaction from a young age. I don't see people of my own gender as keynote speakers; women make up nowhere near half of panellists and our representation in Parliament is shockingly low. Ada Lovelace Day is specifically about tech, but for me the terrifying, alienating process of pretending to be self-assured and confident, speaking up and sharing valid knowledge and experience with people who want to silence me, has been the same within tech as within all other male-dominated spheres. I still need to pretend to be confident half the time, but it's growing on me; I'm starting to get used to the idea that my opinion on technology and politics might be valid, to learn to state it with more flair and confidence, rather than hiding behind self-deprecation or deflecting the conversation onto my personal life.

My ambition is for my daughters and granddaughters not to have to go through this process - to grow up feeling at ease with technology, curious about the new and confident of their role in it. And that means turning ourselves into role-models for the future.

Tonight myself and many other women will be outside Parliament demanding the right to use technology freely. I can't really say it better than Penny Red:

As a woman and a feminist, I am appalled that laws are being tabled that threaten many of these women with disconnection from the source of energy and inspiration that has given me, along with so many millions of others, a renewed political awareness and a visceral sense of sisterhood and solidarity. I have no doubt that if Ada Lovelace were living today, she would be appalled, too.

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