Mothers of Invention Face Technical Taliban

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Deepa Kandaswamy

TAMIL NADU, India (WOMENSENEWS)–The Taj Mahal is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Many know that Emperor Shah Jahan built the monument in memory of his dead wife, Queen Mumtaz Mahal, to showcase his love. But how many know that the queen’s aunt, Nor Mahal, invented the distilling device to make perfumes?

March is Women’s History Month, a time to recognize the women who have come before us. There is a lot of ground to make up. While much outrage has been expressed about the invisibility of Afghan women under the Taliban, almost nothing is ever said about the global, systematic Talibanism of women in technology.

Despite 4,000 years of contributions by women to the world’s technical development, many are unaware of pioneering women such as China’s Empress Shi Dun, credited with inventing paper around 105 A.D.

Florence Nightingale Invented Pie Chart

Women have been readily recognized in fields outside technology. Florence Nightingale, for instance, is a famous nurse, but her invention of the pie chart is virtually unknown.

This disregard for inventive women continues even in today’s Information Age and is a form of discrimination that circles the globe.

In her 1985 book “Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men and Biological Theories about Women and Men,” Anne Fausto-Sterling describes studies analyzing adult brain differences and concludes that verbal ability, visual spatial perception and math ability have nothing to do with gender. Meanwhile, school girls consistently match or surpass boys’ achievements in science and mathematics across the world, according to a UNESCO study.

Despite this, 34 percent of high school girls in the United States were advised against taking math in their senior year of high school, according to a National Science Foundation study in 2000.

Girls Lack Technical Education

In many developing countries, meanwhile, parents refuse to invest in a girl’s technical education at the college level though they are math and science toppers in school.

“Though Arab perceptions are changing, opportunities for women to enter technical fields are far less than men, as parents would rather spend money on their boy child than girl as he’s supposed to help them when they’re old,” says Hadeel Al Treiki, a researcher at the University of Malta who specializes in political and gender narratives in Islamic nations.

As a result of this kind of social conditioning of girls, the view that only men are good at math and machines persists; reality and UNESCO other studies notwithstanding.

It’s a view that in some parts of the world is preserved by tacit acceptance and silence, which is why Harvard University’s president, Larry Summers, became so notorious when he spoke it out loud.

But in some places it’s an idea that is more freely expressed.

Njin-Tsoe Chen, an industrial engineer in the Netherlands, and a friend, recently argued with me about the scarcity of women in technology. “To some extent it’s society,” he said, “but evolution plays a role. Men and women are different.”

From Myth to Conditioning

This myth–that women just don’t have the right stuff for math and science–persists and perpetuates stereotypes that lead to conditioning.

It starts early when parents shop for their children’s first toys, thinking to themselves, “girls like dolls, boys like cars.”

It gets reinforced by a mass media that ignores women’s technical proficiency. Flip through any popular technical or science magazine and you will rarely find an article about a female engineer or technical savant. Instead plenty of women are depicted as beginners. Men stand behind them, looking over their shoulders and pointing at computer screen as if to say, “Okay, now you click here.”

“It’s indicative of the male mentality that women don’t get it,” says Diana Bouchard, a graphic artist friend in Canada who sifts through thousands of these photographs for her various clients in the science and technology press.

Editors justify lack of coverage by saying their readers– assumed to be male–wouldn’t be interested in women in technology.

“The majority of the executives in the industry we primarily cover are men,” says Don Davis, editor of Card Technology magazine, aimed at users of “smart cards,” which are cards that have embedded chips instead of magnetic strips. “Thus, most of the knowledgeable sources are men. As for the audience, I’m sure it’s mostly male.”

Role Models Denied

But by not covering successful women in technology, the media denies the next generation role models.

Meanwhile, those women who do blaze their way into technical fields often find themselves working without a professional office network. It’s not that they’re actively shunned; it’s just that most male colleagues naturally feel more at ease meeting with other male colleagues outside of office hours.

“I find networking to be a major problem,” says a female senior manager at Intel, the world’s largest maker of computer chips, based in Santa Clara, Calif. “I cannot have the same informal ‘outside-work’ relationship with my peers and senior executives that my male competitors could have without spouses being concerned and some people’s tongues wagging.”

Dorothy Parker once said, “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

So why not create a new one?

Ignoring the contributions of an individual is hurtful. Ignoring the contributions of a minority is appalling. Ignoring the potential contributions of half the population is just plain dim-witted; something that needs to be changed.

Deepa Kandaswamy is freelance writer and engineer based in Trichy, India.

For more information:

Agnes Scott College–
Biographies of Women Mathematicians:
http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/women.htm

Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men And Women:
http://bms.brown.edu/faculty/f/afs/afs_publications_books.htm#myths


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