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The National Science Foundation (NSF) is spending over $300,000 to create “feminist theory” for human interaction with computers, and aims to make computer systems more “gender sensitive.”
A project led by a researcher at Drexel University theorizes that there are fewer women in computing fields because computers are made by men.
“The [Principal Investigator] PI’s long-term goal is to create theory to inform [Human-Computer Interaction] HCI design practices, to ensure the production of egalitarian designs that reflect all users’ values,” a grant for the project states. “In particular, she aims to create feminist theory for HCI, which she hopes will close the gap in women’s participation in computing.”
“Previously, the PI has shown how approaches to designing for women are questionable when viewed in light of feminist theory,” the grant continued. “Feminist scholars argue that the lack of women in computing further discourages women from pursuing programming-related careers, and that women are also excluded because technologies created by men better address male needs.”
The research will also explore “gender and technical identities” and the belief that computer system designs “alienate women.”
“The PI believes the problem lies not only in who is excluded but in that the design processes inherently alienate women,” the grant said. “Her approach is to address the problem by bridging previously unrelated aspects of the learning sciences, human-computer interaction, and the science and technology studies of gender, which will be combined with findings from a multi-year ethnographic study to acquire a deep understanding of how girls co-construct their gender and technical identities, how technologies come to be associated with one gender or the other, and how this affects girls’ career choices.”
The study has cost taxpayers $345,019 so far.
The project will teach middle and high school girls to “create technologies in keeping with their gender identity.”
“In doing so the PI expects to learn about girls’ needs, enabling her to develop best practices for gender-sensitive design ensuring equitable access to technology,” the grant said. “By bridging previously unconnected literatures, the project will reframe the problem of gender-equity in computer science from a pipeline issue to one requiring improved design and evaluation practices in HCI.”
The project also hopes to better understand how “young women co-construct their gender and technical identities, what appeals to them about technical careers, and the process by which technology artifacts acquire symbolic gender.”
The project began in 2013, and was renewed this March. Research will continue until 2019.
Jennifer Rode, who teaches at Drexel University, is leading the project. Rode runs a “rainbow lab,” which seeks to “combat the gender disparity and encourage expressions of femininity in computing.”