‘Paving the Future with Technology — Innovation Beyond Gender and Generations’

Technology is a tool that helps us to create. It is available to us today to ensure that we can build a better world in the future.

As we strive for a society where men and women have true equality, we can see that the critical area of computer education remains a male-dominated field in many countries.

The problem was examined in a 2017 report by Britain’s Royal Society, which found that “computing in the UK is a male-dominated subject and actions need to be taken to improve the gender balance.” 

The report found that the gender imbalance remained even after the UK made computer programming a compulsory area of study for all students in 2014. The report found that after completing their compulsory education, the ratio of young women seeking to pursue university or college studies in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) was just 39%, and only 20% sought to go into computing. These numbers were far lower than the 49%-50% who chose mathematics, physics or chemistry.

This disparity exists even though girls proved themselves to be superior students in computing classes, proportionally outscoring boys in the top three grading levels of A*, A and B.

At the same time, the report said that girls appeared to be more confident about studying computing and computer science when not competing directly with boys. It found that 12.3% of students at girls’ schools chose to study computing, much higher than the 3.4% ratio at mixed schools. It stressed that government and industry-funded IT support programs for teachers must prioritise changing the gender balance in computing.

History Shows A Way Forward

Looking at history, it is clear that there is no practical reason for this male dominance, with women making some of the landmark achievements in computing. Computer scientist Margaret Hamilton led the MIT team that developed on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo Space Program. More than 100 years earlier, it was another woman, English mathematician Ada Lovelace, who created the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine, becoming what is seen today as the world’s first computer programmer.

“I was kind of nerdy and so I got into computers,” says Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge in the UK. Her work includes developing technology for the medical and educational fields, as well as for disabled people. She notes that during her time in high school, very few female students took computer classes.

Not only in Japan but all over the world, some might see women who are involved in computers are different. If a girl doesn’t want her sweetheart to consider her “different”, will she still willingly take computer classes?

Zhang says more needs to be done to help teenage girls feel more independent, noting that those in mixed schools were less willing to break out and be different, depriving society of a valuable resource.

“Imagine how many great innovations would become a reality if women’s voices could be heard more in the development scene,” says Zhang.

What interests Zhang the most is the process itself of using technology and being able to change somebody’s life little by little. Needless to say, having faith in using technology to change the world and using imagination to guide somebody’s life in a positive direction have nothing to do with gender.

Japan’s “computer girls”

When Mizuki Shimakage was a student, it was Japan’s so-called “employment ice age,” the long economic slump that had worsened employment prospects for new graduates. Wanting to acquire marketable skills, she attended the National Institute of Technology, Toba College (in Mie Prefecture) and studied computer programming at the Department of Information and Control Engineering. Today, she works as member of technical solutions at Microsoft Japan.

Shimakage says that she became familiar with the world of apps through club activities, discovering the excitement of connecting to the world through the common language of programming. In 2014, she took part in Imagine Cup, the world’s largest IT contest for students, which is hosted each year by Microsoft. Graduating from the Japan contest, she took part in the World Finals in Seattle.

But excellence in computer technology is not only for the young. Masako Wakamiya, who would be about the same age as Shimakage’s grandmother, taught herself computer programming after retiring in 1997 from a job in banking and made her first game app “hinadan” when she was 81.

According to Wakamiya, the greatest satisfaction in the creative process of programming is that “it moves the way I tell it to.” After she launched her app, she was overjoyed to receive feedback such as “my 84-year-old mother, who has never used a smartphone, was playing the game with so much joy,” and “It’s the first app that can be played across three generations: my mother, my daughter and me.”

In addition to work and hobbies, women have the eyes of an expert when it comes to everyday life and are adept at noticing small but essential needs. “By looking at the needs that exist in our daily lives, we can see problems that can be solved using computer programming,” she says. One such solution is a small device embedded in the shoes of elderly men so that they can be found by their wives if they wander off alone. “You can create a solution for every need, no matter how small,” she says.

In 2020, computer programming will become a compulsory subject in all Japanese elementary schools so children can gain valuable experience and learn that today’s social infrastructure is powered by IT. Learning about technology, regardless of age or gender, will help to create the opportunities that can shape our future and lead to innovations that will be benefit everyone in society.

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