Isabelle Collet: 'We need to fix the system for stereotypes in tech to vanish'

Professor Isabelle Collet. (c) Sabine Papilloud.

February 11 was the International Day of Women and Girls in science and an opportunity to consider the gender gap in a field generally associated with men. Beyond the problems related to accessing the technologies themselves, it is equally important to focus on the educational aspects to ensure that the future technical developments reflects social equality and bring the world closer to achieving the internationally agreed sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The third 2030 Digital Fasttrack studio, launched by the UNESCO Geneva Liaison Office, Microsoft and the Graduate Institute, is an attempt to understand the impact of the gender divide and what is needed to make a difference. Among the invited panelists, University of Geneva professor in education and former computer scientist, Isabelle Collet, shares her experience of what is not a historically rooted inequality. Now engaged in sociology and gender studies, she takes us along the historical and sociological path of women and technology.

How did you choose computer science to start with?

At the beginning, I did not know or realise that computer science was supposed to be a male topic. I discovered computer programming with my father, and thought it was quite fun. I never thought about it as a career. But when I started studying at the university, I tried computer science because it was natural and easy for me.

After having obtained a bachelor's degree in image processing, I tried to find a job. That’s when everything became more difficult. I was a young married woman without children at the time. I was not the best option for my potential employers, as I was going to have many children and would need to take care of them. Moreover, there was a crisis in the computer field in France, and it was difficult for everyone to get a job. I did not find an interesting and permanent job in IT. After six years of working in training and documentation, I thought it was not for me, and went back to university and discovered gender studies.

I finally understood what I had experienced. Before that, I really thought women had achieved equality. The gender gap might have been a problem for my mother, but not for me as I was a computer scientist. My studies in education helped me understand many things and while doing my PHD, I had one question in mind: why are there so many men in computer science and so few women?

Has computer science always been a male activity?

Computer science was not a particularly male-oriented subject in the eighties, especially coding and programming. It was even quite female before the seventies, because coding and programming were not prestigious enough. There was no University degree to become a software engineer, for example. The main focus in the field was on hardware, and not software. And consider the words themselves. Hardware and software are gendered words, and there is a reason for that. In hardware, there were men, and in software, there were underpaid and underqualified women.

But some of the main discoveries in the field were made by women. Ada Lovelace, for example, recognised the full potential of a computer in the late nineteenth century. Later, in the fifties, Grace Hopper became one of the first senior programmers. She said, at that time already, that software would become more important and expensive than hardware, and that the future would be in software. Nobody believed her. But she was absolutely right. Today, software has become essential, and we tend to say that software is a male thing as it is logic and has nothing to do with people. We rationalise the concept posteriorly. But in the fifties and sixties, software was said to be perfectly suited for women. Programming a computer was like programming a dinner, or following a recipe for a meal. It was not paid enough, so men were not interested.

Do you mean that there is a relation between the number of men in the field and the notion of power?

Absolutely. The more valuable a field of knowledge becomes in the social world, the more masculinised it becomes. And conversely, the more it loses value in the social world, the more it becomes feminised. This phenomenon can also be observed in the medical and educational fields.

Do you feel that there has been a change in the past decade?

There is a significant change. Not in the statistics, at least not yet, but in the mind. Ten years ago, I was still working on that topic, and people continuously told me that women were not interested in computer science. As women were not choosing that path, people supposed that they did not like it. It is definitely not our point of view today. We do not need to fix women, we need to fix the system. If we do fix the system, it will become more inclusive, so that women can choose to have a career and stay in this field. This is the new issue. This awareness is crucial to change things.

Are people more conscious of that now?

There are still many people who think in terms of blue and pink brains. With a pink brain, you cannot do IT. But more and more people within companies, the industry or universities realise that we need women and that they have abilities of course. The reason their number is smaller is related to systemic discrimination.

The question is: do we really want to hire women? Or do we hope for them to come by some sort of magical effect? Because if you want to enroll women, you must change. It might be difficult for a man with a great career in higher education, for example, to realise that maybe, if the game had been fair, he would not have gone this far. And that maybe, he is where he is at now, because the game was not fair for women. It is quite uncomfortable to think about that. Institutions and companies must change drastically. But will they? Can they afford it? And are they ready to think that maybe their DNA was not only male? That is another question.

Why do we need more women in technology?

Because we will have better IT with more diversity. If we take my phone as an example. It is too big for my hand. It is perfectly fitted for a man’s hand but not for mine. If there are only men and no women in the designing teams, nobody will realise that the phone is too big for half of the population.

When health applications were introduced, we could not monitor menstrual cycles as it did not interest developers. When you ask Siri where to buy condoms, it can answer. But if you ask where to find tampons, for example, it does not always understand the word itself. When you speak to a computer, it is often easier to make yourself understood if you are a man, simply because computers are more trained to recognise male voices than female voices. And it goes on and on.

How do you feel the younger generation positions itself?

There is absolutely no gender gap in primary school. Everybody likes robots, for example.  But what we can already observe is that boys think robots belong to them. Although boys and girls are interested in robots alike, boys, in their behaviour, consider them to be part of their domain.

Later, it just becomes worse. When a teenage girl has to choose between, biology, for example, where there is 50 to 60 per cent of women, and IT, where she might end up alone, the choice is obvious. Usually, girls say that they do not have problems with boys, but boys seem to have a problem with girls joining them. It is easy to inspire women and tell them that IT is great. IT is great indeed. But is the IT world as great? I am not so sure.

Girls usually succeed. They build the same knowledge as boys but not the same relationship to knowledge.

What would be needed to trigger the change?

Quotas might seem like a disappointing solution but they work. Usually, people do not like them, because they are afraid of hiring less competent people, or people who do not really deserve it.  But what we have to realise is that there are many pitfalls along the road for women. Introducing a quota, means acknowledging that it is harder. And if you consider women’s grades in high school or universities, except perhaps in mathematics in Switzerland, they are as good if not better than men’s grades. Moreover, women are very efficient, as they have to pass so many obstacles. They would be more determined to succeed.

Quotas are easy, quotas are cheap, and they work. They are a bit disappointing because we always hope for something different, maybe role models, for example. Unfortunately, there is no scientific proof that role models work alone. In the midst of a series of several affirmative actions, it is a different thing. But alone, they do not have the intended effect. Role models might help and encourage women who are already thinking about IT, but they will not create the necessary desire or drive among women who are outside that circle.

Another way to move forward is to fight stereotypes, but it is not enough. Usually, people think that stereotypes produce discrimination. It is the other way around. Discrimination produces stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is that they are constantly evolving. We keep building new stereotypes to prove to ourselves that there is no discrimination, and only nature. We must destroy discriminations and fix the system, then only, with time, stereotypes will vanish as we will not need them anymore.