Untapped potential

Marie-Paule Cani, a leading French computer scientist in computer graphics, visited New Zealand recently and talked about how to attack the worldwide shortage in IT skills by involving more women

Just awarded the “Irène Joliot Curie” award for mentoring young women scientists, Marie-Paule Cani sees a huge untapped potential for women to engage creatively with computer science. But women won’t make that choice if they keep seeing IT as boring, male dominated, and nothing to do with people.

As joint director of the multi-million euro GRAVIR lab at Grenoble Université & INRIA, in the French Alps, and creator of research group EVASION, Cani says gender affects the career paths that men and women choose within the ICT industry, and how they relate to technology.

Cani says men are more likely to be fascinated by computer technology — functionality, hardware and how the software is compiled. Women tend to regard computer technology as a tool — used as part of their work.

“The way that many young men talk about computers is boring for most young women, and turns them off,” she says. “This is a great pity, because all fields of information technology are fascinating, particularly computer science which has much to offer women. It is creative, challenging, people orientated, and energising, all things that many women seek when considering a career.

“Women also work differently in computer science. They are more organised. They don’t immediately jump into programming. They think a lot about their goals, and then they program when they are sure about what they are doing. Male students often program quickly, straight away. Often, with more complicated problems, it is more efficient to think first and then use the computer.”

In the computer science faculty at Grenoble today, 20% of academic staff are women. They also head research groups of 20-30 people. However, only 10% of the students are women.

At the University of Otago, there are no women academics on the Faculty of Computer Science — only women teaching assistants who don’t do research.

French women use computers in everyday life, but only 15% are in computer science and only 4% in specialist areas like game development. Cani became active and aware of the issue after a conference in Paris in 2000 “Science and technology: why girls?” She promotes it through gender studies — women scientists recount their life histories and analyse the problem.

As a child, Cani specialised in sciences, mostly maths and physics, pushed by her mother. Her senior years were spent in a small supportive class of ten senior girls. But in the early 1980s, she entered the “Class Preparatoires” in math/physics, a system parallel to the two first years of university, to prepare for the selective exams required to enter the “Grandes Ecole” system, where the best French students go instead of university.

As one of four girls in a class of 55 boys, and one of the two girls who survived the two years, maths and physics were taught in a very competitive environment.

“Each week, there was an interrogation on maths and science with three other people in the room — so everyone knew if you failed. This was very stressful. I was ill, sick all the time, and my mother said that I should give up as it was too difficult. But I had character, and I persisted.”

After graduating in pure mathematics in 1986, Cani took a Master’s degree and then a PhD in computer science, specialising in computer graphics. She married and had her first child six months before defending her PhD.

Cani says the male image associated with computer science is a significant barrier to women. It arises from an old male-female stereotype, making all kinds of machines male, ignoring the fact that women traditionally use tools in the domestic domain.

Few women choose computer science at university, but those who do succeed as much as men. Another image has become a legend about computer science: women think they will have to work long hours, day and night, as autodidacts, which isn’t compatible with having a social and family life.

A further barrier is the way women and computers are presented in the media, she says.

“Beautiful women are shown as an object to sell computers, because the marketers assume that men are the purchasers and they will be attracted to that product through that association. Okay, if you want this supermodel as your girlfriend, you’d better buy this product!”

Women are shown as stupid — not knowing how to use technology — and they need men as specialists to show them, she says. A third image is women as a devil — as an evil super hacker — like Serenity in The Matrix. They are dressed in tight fitting sexy black clothing, and have male attributes like being violent, and frightening, she says.

Cani says there are two possible reasons why girls are not attracted to computer science: they are either not suited or, as a result of their family background and schooling, they auto-exclude themselves. Biological differences have often been used in the past to justify inequalities — and even if it has some basis, we have to ask whether those differences are biological or cultural?

“Studies have shown that the impact of social upbringing is stronger than nature, with, for example, bilingual children having different abilities arising from speaking with two parents,” she says. “So, even if it were true, if girls were exposed to computer science from a young age, it is likely that their brains will develop differently.”

Boys seem to be captivated by technology as an object, Cani says. They like touching technology, pressing buttons. They find their new iPod, for instance, very tactile. They like to use technical jargon, and assume they know a lot about computers because they are very good at playing computer games.

“There’s no psychological barrier before boys use a computer because they think they know and they think it’s going to be easy. While they underestimate what they will need to know and how much they will need to work, it is good to be self-confident in a new subject,” Cani says.

Girls interact with the computer quite differently, Cani says. Even if they know a little bit, they don’t claim they know. They think problems come from their mistakes. They call a teacher easily for help, even if they don’t need it. Girls are afraid that they might break the computer, because they don’t know how to use it, she says.

“This attitude is made worse by a major mistake that people assume that computers are computer science. Computer science is something completely different. It is a science. It’s based on mathematical reasoning, it relies on logic, problem solving, scheduling tasks, and many girls do have those skills.”

Cani says successful women in any field often acquire male values and are used to prove the system is fair. They can become highly competitive to the point of cutting out the competition to get to the top.

Like a God in a virtual world

Cani says she is motivated by working with her students to create and to have control over what is made. The virtual world can be used to make the real world better, she says.

Computer graphics, incorporating avatars of real models, are being developed within her research lab to allow the virtual testing of prototypes and new products. Her teams are also designing training systems for surgeons that feel the same as operating on a human body, but without risk to the patient.

Another project converts 2D videos of animals and plants into 3D animated motion to simulate virtual movement or growth, and links different fields of science.

“It’s like a dream. You are like a god in a virtual world and you can build, piece by piece, and you can change the world if you like … which is fascinating.”

Diane McCarthy is a lecturer in ethics and professionalism at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology

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