But Conway is a
computer scientist who rejects easy answers, an engineer who makes
explicit distinctions between knowing, surmising and just plain
thinking out loud. And she wants it clear that she’s doing a bit of
all three as she talks about gender and computing: these are
observations she’s making here, not pronouncements.
That said, Conway’s a woman of strong opinions and rapid-fire
reasoning skills. She’s quick but thorough, punctuating long
soliloquies with short check-ins: “See what I mean?” “Understand
where I’m going with this?” And through it all, through hours of
thoughtful, open-ended and far-reaching discussion, Conway laughs
often and easily — a laugh she directs, in turns, at herself, at
life’s ironies, and at the differences between the sexes.
“All this stuff about girls not going into high tech because they’re
not good at math and science?” she says. “That’s nonsense.”
Creativity: The Mother of Invention
The math and
science thresholds aren’t all that high, and besides, getting over
them is only the beginning. “What makes or breaks a career isn’t
math and science, it’s the ability to create and innovate,” she
says. “And guys have no lock on that. Not even close.”
In fact, she suggests, women tend to be more comfortable with the
creative give-and-take from which great ideas come. Unfortunately,
most don’t realize that high tech has as much to do with
collaboration as with calculus.
are lots of women who would love the work, but first they have to go
to college and study engineering and computer science,” she says.
“And there is nothing — nothing — about that experience that
remotely suggests what a creative, exciting, dynamic profession it
is. So women don’t choose it.
obvious why women aren’t going into engineering,” she says. “It’s
not that it’s too difficult — it’s not. It’s the culture of higher
ed. And that really galls me.”
Women who do earn engineering degrees
should be more savvy about the firms they join, Conway says. Most
companies don’t get it yet, but the old paradigm is on its way out.
“If you look around and all you see are a bunch of white nerdy guys,
get out of there,” she says. “That’s not where great work is going
New ideas are most likely
to emerge from a mix of wildly divergent points of view, Conway
says. And that means the IT environment should be a place where
difference is not tolerated but celebrated.
“Really hot, sharp, creative people want to be in a place that
appreciates diversity,” she says. Women should use a work site’s
attitudes towards all kinds of “otherness” as a marker for its
degree of gender equity.
workplaces may seem to have gotten over their discomfort about
having women around, but if you notice their reactions to people who
are gender variant — slightly feminine guys or slightly butch gals,
for example — that’s a marker for how welcoming they truly are.
“The more comfortable an organization is with diversity — all kinds
of diversity — the higher the glass ceiling is going to be.”
Conway points to the
work of women like Dr. Anita Borg, director of the Institute for
Women and Technology at Xerox Parc, whose research helps women
imagine, design, and help create technologies that reflect their
needs and sensibilities.
“What Anita has
managed to do is show, not as speculation but as a reality, that
there are domains of technology that guys aren’t going to think
about,” she says.
Guys didn’t think
about collaboration when they created the personal computer decades
ago. “It was such a huge improvement over what had gone before,”
Conway says, “but it came out of a certain ideology — a male
“All of your interactions with
a PC have that kind of highly constrained, turf-bound, control-bound
male feel to them,” she says. “It’s like a male
Herself in Tech
The female version would have been
very different. “You’d all be working together on a big whiteboard,
sharing your ideas, and yacking away,” she says. “That’s a more
female thing, wrapping yourself and your friends in the technology.”
Broadband and wireless are about to transform everything yet again.
And technology is about to become more collaborative, more
sensitive, more interactive, and more, well, feminine.
“We’re entering the decade in which women will put their stamp on
technology,” Conway predicts. “It’ll have to do with collaboration,
teaming, augmenting in very strong ways our social connectivities,
feeling each other’s presence in the world.
“It’s time,” she says. “And it’s all sitting there, waiting for us.
It really is.”
A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of
Virtual Ethics. Wired Women appears on alternate Wednesdays.