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Hidden Figures of Digital Humanities

Watching the film Hidden Figures reminded me of my research on women in computing and some of the gender issues in the field of Digital Humanities. In a discussion after the screening that I had both attended and helped to organize/promote with other women (as a special fundraiser to help create an undergraduate scholarship for a woman to study STEM), I mentioned how frustrating it was that women had been written out of the history of computing at large, not just in regards to the space program. It was only after seeing the quizzical looks on the women’s faces around me that I realized the presence of women in computing is not common knowledge either. The stereotype that seems to predominate in the popular culture is that computing belongs to Silicon Valley and male computer programmers.  I have been fortunate to have discovered more of women’s history in computing due to my involvement with Digital Humanities, but it is important that the involvement of women become more widely known. So I write this post as a brief introduction to some of the insights I have come across – to share with those who want to learn about some ‘hidden figures’ and to wonder about whose stories are still left to be discovered in the field of Digital Humanities. Because in fact, women have been instrumental to computing since the beginning…

Hidden Figures posterFor those who haven’t viewed the film (highly recommend! – nominated for three Academy Awards), Hidden Figures follows the stories of three African-American women – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson – in the U.S. during the Space Race whose efforts in computing, mathematics, and engineering were crucial to the success of the mission to put astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Each woman must overcome various obstacles including racial and gender biases in order to be taken seriously and be respected by her coworkers, and to succeed at her job. For example, one building lacks a bathroom for black women (bathrooms were segregated at this time), and it is not until this issue impedes on the mission’s ability to meet a deadline that something is done about it. The film showcases the genius and resourcefulness of these women whom I and others I talked to admittedly had never heard of before. This film did a great job of bringing their stories and brilliance to life.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), born Augusta Ada Byron, was a gifted mathematician who is now considered to be the first computer programmer, given that she wrote instructions for the first computer program, all the way back in the 1800s. She was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron and his spouse, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron. She met Charles Babbage, known as the father of the computer, when she was 17 and he mentored her and enabled her to study advanced math with a University of London professor. Although Babbage invented the difference engine and analytical engine, after Lovelace was asked to translate one of his articles, she added her own ideas about his machine which were about how codes could be used to handle letters and symbols, not just numbers. She also came up with a theory for repetition of instructions, now known as the looping process that modern computer programs use. Though few paid attention to her article when she was alive, she is now honored through the celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, first held in 2009.

*Source: Ada Lovelace Biography.com (2017)

Women Computer Programmers in the 20th Century

During World War II when there was a need for ‘human computers’ who could solve equations by hand and also program computers, women stepped up to fill these roles. Jean Jennings Bartik was one of six female mathematicians who created programs for a new machine belonging to the U.S. Army called the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which was one of the first all-electronic general-purpose computers. Men built the hardware and circuits but didn’t think the programming was an important job. Bartik said in an interview in 2008 that even though the women were responsible for getting the machine to work the night before its first demo, they weren’t invited out to dinner the next day and weren’t named in the photos. They were basically invisible. Adele Goldstine was another key woman in the development of ENIAC who created a systematic method of programming and the program manual, yet has only recently been acknowledged for her work in the field.

After the war was over, Bartik and her team moved on to the UNIVAC, a major commercial computer. They worked with Grace Murray Hopper, who was a tenured math professor in the Navy Reserve. Hopper discovered a way to program with words instead of numbers, which became a programming language known as COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) that is still used today. She retired from the Navy with the rank of rear admiral and is sometimes known as being the Queen of Software for her work in developing programming languages. There was even a 1967 article called “The Computer Girls” in Cosmopolitan magazine which quoted Hopper as comparing programming to planning a dinner, where you have to plan ahead and schedule everything.

Computer Girls magazine article

“The Computer Girls” article in Cosmopolitan magazine

She said women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming and her goal was that all people should be able to use and program computers. Another woman who worked on the UNIVAC, Adele Mildred Koss, actually found that working in computing was quite accommodating to female programmers who were mothers, making a work-life balance more possible. Many women did not actually have formal training in computing but took advantage of the opportunities that it provided and found success.

*Sources:

Further information: 2014 documentary film Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II and interactive iPad book app The Computer Wore Heels

Women in Early Digital Humanities

This brings us to the history of women in the field of Digital Humanities. For those who haven’t heard of Digital Humanities, it is a relatively new field which sits at the intersection of digital technologies and the humanities (like English literature, philosophy, and history). It sometimes functions more like the sciences in terms of having labs and teams rather than individuals working alone, and can include projects that involve making websites for cultural material, using databases, creating network analyses, examining social media, and doing other tasks that further the study of human culture and generate new ways of teaching and researching. Before it was known as Digital Humanities, however, it was sometimes called Humanities Computing, and its history goes back to the 1940s with its father, Father Roberto Busa in Italy, and what is considered to be the first Digital Humanities project.

Father Busa was a Jesuit priest who thought that the newly developing computing technology could be harnessed to help him create an index of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. He went to the U.S. to visit Thomas J. Watson at IBM and received some assistance to process punchcard data to make his index, which included some 9 to 11 million words of medieval Latin. What is often left out of this story is the fact that Father Busa then employed dozens of women to do the programming, and he proudly believed he was helping them attain valuable job skills through their work on the project. I only know about these women due to Digital Humanities scholar Melissa Terras’ work on uncovering the stories of these women. In fact, she has written a blog post (for Ada Lovelace Day, 2013) about her research, which included traveling to Italy and obtaining permission to share several photos of the women with permission from the CIRCSE Research Centre at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy with a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC), which are also in the blog post. I have included three of them here:

Women in Busa Project

Women working on Father Roberto Busa’s index project (1950s-60s) CC-BY-NC CIRCSE Research Centre

 

Women in Busa Project

Women working on Father Roberto Busa’s index project (back left: Rosetta Rossi Bertolli; bottom right Livia Canestraro) (1950s-60s) CC-BY-NC CIRCSE Research Centre

 

Women in Busa Project

Livia Canestraro working on Father Roberto Busa’s index project, being overseen by visiting dignitaries (1950s-60s) CC-BY-NC CIRCSE Research Centre

(This last photo is my favorite, with Ms. Canestraro reminding me of Princess Leia, surrounded by men but seemingly unperturbed.) I consider it a point of pride that women were so instrumental in working on this pivotal Digital Humanities project. But the pioneering work of women in computing leads me to wonder how we moved from women being so connected with computers to the present, where research continues to show that women often feel alienated from computing.

*Sources:

Disappearing Figures

Despite women’s instrumental roles as ‘computers’ themselves and as programmers, by the 1980s, when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates began to appear in the media and personal computers came about, the number of women who majored in computer science began to drop. From the 1980s to 2010, females went from being 37% of college students receiving bachelor’s degrees in Computer and Information Sciences to 18%. This happened even though the overall percentage of female college students was increasing and women were a majority.

There may have been several reasons proposed for this gender shift. Men may have wanted to get into the challenging tasks of programming and with their entry, the field may then have become more prestigious. Professional associations that excluded women may also have prevented them from entering the field. Personal computers were often marketed as toys for boys and the stereotype of the male computer geek became more prevalent in the popular culture.

In just a few decades then, computing and information technology became seen as male-dominated fields, and computing culture became decidedly more associated with masculine traits. The history of women’s achievements is only recently being recovered, with many girls and women unaware at how influential women have been in the field.

*Sources:

Where are the Women?

I see this as relating to Digital Humanities in that I have seen the field struggling recently with issues of diversity, access, and privilege, and that people are speaking out to try to address them. During Digital Humanities scholar Deb Verhoeven’s speech “Has anyone seen a woman?” at the 2015 Digital Humanities Conference, she boldly took the stage and called for men to exit it to allow more women to be heard and recognized. She was addressing the invisibility of women after a “parade of patriarchs” had dominated the stage on the opening day of the conference.

Deb Verhoeven speech

Deb Verhoeven’s speech “Has anyone seen a woman?” at 2015 Digital Humanities Conference

Soon her words ended up having a direct impact on me because just days later I was asked to speak on that very same stage at a small gathering of people for an annual meeting. At first I balked but then was encouraged by two men who were trying to heed her words, and it ended up being a positive experience. Her voice had raised the consciousness of many, and it helped persuade me that it was important for women to be heard even if they may not feel comfortable with public speaking.

Raising women’s visibility – both past and present – and reclaiming women’s history and stories is an important part of feminism; there are countless achievements to celebrate, from small to large. The question becomes how does a field like Digital Humanities avoid making the same mistakes as the history books have with the African-American women at NASA and women in computing? How does it avoid obscuring the labor that often goes on behind-the-scenes in Digital Humanities projects?

If we were to construct a narrative or timeline of women in Digital Humanities, what would it look like? How many ‘hidden figures’ in labs, teams, and projects might be in Digital Humanities?

Notes from Gender Equality and Feminist New Practice in EU and Global Discourse

Resistance, Backlash and Power: Gender Equality and Feminist New Practice in EU and Global Discourse

International Symposium
European Union Centre Network NZ (EUCN NZ)
National Centre for Research on Europe (NCRE) and the University of Canterbury
April 1, 2016

Many thanks to Associate Professor Annick Masselot for organizing this symposium and extending a warm welcome to those of us who wanted to come and listen. It was an enjoyable educational experience with issues from both Europe and New Zealand that I had not considered previously. I took some limited notes and have assembled them below – several of the presenters have forthcoming books if you are interested in more details on their topic.

Revisiting Intersectionality under EU Anti-Discrimination Law: Lessons from the Crisis? A Critical Legal Studies Perspective
By Professor Dagmar Schiek (Queen’s University, Belfast)

Schiek discussed how efforts remain disjointed in EU anti-discrimination laws. There are gender experts, the disability lobby, and the European anti-racism movement. She proposed three nodes to address the gap between anti-discrimination laws—Gender, Race, and Disability—and explained why class was not one of them. She said that from a legal perspective, intersectionality and class are mutually exclusive. Issues of class are addressed in other areas of the law.

The Construction of Vulnerability: Disabled Women and Predatory Abuse
By Debbie Hagar (Auckland University)

Hagar interviewed dozens of people related to the title issue and found that people said that they were not vulnerable, rather the system makes situations where they are made to feel vulnerable. There was a sense of inevitability, an expectation that vulnerable people will be harmed, and this seeps into the thinking around the issue. In New Zealand, the law allows for women with intellectual disabilities to be sterilized if they are at risk of sexual abuse, thus ignoring the perpetrators. She emphasized that we are all able to be harmed because we are embodied, regardless of disability. Vulnerability is a construction, a label we put on people. She said that we need to reframe the paradigm so we are not continually labelled as vulnerable. Recent example was given of yet another group of boys not being convicted of rape because it is seen as harming their future life endeavors).

The Impact of Gender Neutrality on Gender Equality: How Should New Zealand Law Define Rape?
By Elisabeth McDonald (Victoria University)

McDonald looked at the May 2005 Select Committee in New Zealand which decided to keep rape as a gender specific offense in Section 128. Whereas other parts of the law are becoming gender-neutral, in this case it was specifically decided to keep the definition of rape. There are consequences for those who do not fit the gender binary then, including for trans women and men. Other actions can fall under the ‘unlawful sexual connection’ clauses, but not the rape one. It raises issues regarding the power of language and words and how they impact on sentencing.

Showing Judges How to Walk the Walk: The Feminist Judgments Project Aotearoa
By Rhonda Powell (University of Canterbury)

In 2008, R. Hunter asked “Can Feminist Judges Make a Difference” in the International Journal of the Legal Profession, looking at whether adding feminism rather than adding women would make a difference in law. Powell discussed bringing this project, which has been implemented elsewhere in the world, to New Zealand, where 29.9% of New Zealand judges are women. She and others are asking what would a feminist judge do in certain historical cases which seem to have had no consideration of women’s perspectives or interests. So what would we expect a feminist judge to do? Ask the ‘woman question’, take into account women’s interest, listen to women’s perspectives, tell women’s stories, challenge gender bias, contextualize legal decision, and address injustice and inequality. One can see feminist judging as a refusal to accept the concept of legal/law neutrality. They hope to have a publication out within the next year – looks to be a very interesting project (and makes me want to read about the other ones in the world!).

Victims of Sexual Exploitation by Peacekeepers: The Question of Agency in the UN’s Zero-Tolerance Policy
By Cassandra Mudgway

In looking at how the UN deals with sexual exploitation by its peacekeepers, arguably it is treating sex as the problem, rather than the context. It removes agency for women to not look at the context. A big issue is that the UN doesn’t have the capacity to criminally prosecute – it must rely on the nations to carry out that task, which doesn’t necessarily happen. Victims are literally last on the list for assistance, so even if the perpetrator is removed, the victims are often not given care or support. High-level discussions at the UN do not include sex work or sex-for-food issues, which need to be addressed. Mudgway discussed the need for victim-centered policies.

Beholden: (To Olympia): An Artists’s Response to Unveiling, Agency and the Pornographic Gaze
By Sorcia Forgan

Forgan opened with a discussion of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (~1463) as being a shift in the depiction of the female nude, breaking away from the Church. She detailed her performance piece wherein people are confronted with the gaze and literally write in pen on the performer, which prompts reflection. She assembled a small-scale viewing room next to the main room for symposium participants to look at and watch a recording of the performance.

Gender Equality and a Policy Challenge in the Public and Private Spheres (Paid Parental Leave)
By Suzy Morrissey (Victoria University)

Morrissey’s research question is what is the process of ‘problematization’ that led to the Paid Parental Leave (PPL) policies of New Zealand and Norway? She compared the policy discourse in both countries and found them to be quite different. In general, there are dynamic changes depending on which area of policy something is in. For example, there is usually no problem with employer-paid annual leave or sick leave, as that is now taken for granted in many countries. However, welfare is in a different sphere and is used with the language of dependency, cost, and being a burden on society. The difference in the discourse around PPL in the two countries was that in New Zealand, it was argued that women needed a paid break because it was assumed that they would be the primary carer, while in Norway, they intentionally wanted to move away from the old model to a new dual-carer model. Morrissey discussed the What’s the Problem Represented to Be (WPR) framework as offering a new way of looking at issues like this.

European Union Gender Action Plan 2016-2020: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Relations
By Ana Gilling (Victoria University)

Gilling discussed the refugee/immigration crisis in Europe as overwhelming, with lots of disturbing images online to be encountered by those doing research, especially into the gender aspect, which is what she was doing. She said that organizations are now saying that trafficking and refugee problems can no longer be separated due to enormity of the problems. There were no women at the table at the Syrian peace talks (which is disturbing), and that the issue of gender is being sidelined because of the crisis (now used as an excuse). Funding is more likely to go toward dealing with this issue than specific gender ones.

Equality and Opportunity: Educational Reform and Its Workplace Legacies
By Sarah Christie (Otago University)

Christie gave a historical overview of education in relation to women in New Zealand. Women’s work was still seen as temporary in spite of women being afforded more educational opportunities. Essentially there were three streams: academic, commercial, and homecraft. One of the interesting facts she related was that until 1942, girls were required to take Home Science courses and these took the place of other Science courses (except for Botany).

Identity Politics, Bourgeois Feminism, and Postmodernism
By Sionainn Byrnes

Byrnes opened with two clips, one of a New Zealand morning talk-show interview with a female University of Canterbury Entrepreneurship student, and the other of Madeleine Albright endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. She used these to frame her discussion of identity politics (women, gays, Latinos, etc.) seeming to now force people to support others ‘like them’ based on their identity, even if they don’t necessarily agree (she gave the example of New Zealand politician Paula Bennett). Both clips had made reference to the need to support other women so as not to be petty and jealous or betray the cause. She proposed using postmodern theory as a more productive way of finding support for progress by avoiding some of the issues with identity politics.

Changing Features of ‘Ethnic’ Migration, Gender and Multi-layered Belonging in Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany
By Ulrike M. Vieten

Vieten looked at what she called the ‘New Europeans’, those with post-cosmopolitan and trans-national local identities. She interviewed a variety of people from different backgrounds in Europe and found that they had different and difficult outlooks on Europe. One example was interviewing a person of Turkish descent in Germany and asking how they classify themselves (like do they identify as a German or not). This tied in with the earlier discussions of the refugee crisis and how this and following generations will integrate or not integrate in European societies.

Q&A Session
It came up that the discourse here in New Zealand is not on fire or on the same level like it is in Europe and elsewhere (“when you look at what passes for media…”). It is also interesting that the arguments against making the EU any larger use gender for political ends but only when it suits them (as in, Turkey doesn’t treat women as well as we do in Europe or the UK, so it shouldn’t be let into the EU).

Added to the Agenda: How Intersectional Groups Can Gain Policy Makers’ Attention
By Louise K. Davidson-Schmich (University of Miami)

The question Davidson-Schmich asked was how can citizens belonging to two or more marginalized groups capture policy makers’ attention? Germany was used as a crucial case as it was one that she and her co-authors were familiar with. They used process tracing to determine who speaks for the group, and documented silence: who doesn’t speak? what is not said? She said that they found that intersectional groups need allies, and there are three ways of doing this: top down (using existing policies like those of the EU or UN), convergence with policy maker interests (when politicians appropriate concerns for their own needs – like being concerned with immigrant women when they’re really against immigration), and bottom up (unions getting on board with minimum wage when it looks to benefit them).

Whose Stories Get Told? Feminist Adventures in Feature Film Development
By Marian Evans

Evans used her time to present and then engage the audience in reflecting on the films they consume. She said that only 14.5% of the New Zealand taxpayer-funded films since 2003 have been directed by women. And there was no work written and directed by a Maori woman. There are best practice models available now in Norway, Iceland, and elsewhere. The last Women’s Film Festival was in 2003 and it seems like there is still no demand for another one. One prohibiting factor in women in film development is that it takes 7-13 years, so it is a lot of time and effort to do so. She asked the audience for suggestions on how to increase women’s participation, as it seemed like progress has stalled. Several in the audience admitted that they don’t consider the gender of directors or other roles involved with films – one noted that they are conscious of that when it comes to their books but not movies.

Leading by Feminist Example? The EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
By Serena Kelly (University of Canterbury)

Kelly looked at images of powerful women, specifically Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini, two female HRVPs of the EU, in the New Zealand media. It was interesting that no specific mention was made in the New Zealand media about women’s rights. Kelly noted that although there is the power of hostile images, positive images must also be cultivated.

The Problem of Articulating ‘Unfreedom’ as a Global Feminist Discourse
By Cindy Zeiher (University of Canterbury)

Zeiher discussed the concept of unfreedom and how choice feminism relies on it to maintain itself; choice feminism is motivated by a fear of politics and does not seek to change the status quo. She acknowledged that it is difficult and demanding to be a politically engaged feminist, but that we should take pleasure in listening to our critics and using what they say to think critically about feminism (and try to encourage them to get engaged in it because they see us taking pleasure in it).

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