Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A lack of role models

We make a lot of lists. The Fortune 500 Top Companies. The Forbes 400 Richest People in America. The NCAA uses controversial systems to rank teams and decide a winner without using playoffs. Lists are our means of ranking things, they allow us to highlight the top people, team, organizations in a concrete format to decipher who's best, strongest, most important.

Lists of powerful individuals are often devoid of much diversity. Looking at the Forbes 400 list women aren't exactly abundant. Christy and Alice Walton make the top 10 but their fortune is from "inheritance." In a list of men tagged with "self made," the first woman I can find not tagged inheritance is Oprah Winfrey waaay down at 141. How do Forbes and others make up for their lacking diversity? By creating niche rankings of course! Forbes throws on a list of 100 Most Powerful Women to let us know that yes powerful women exist. But this sentiment seems tacked on, these lists are hard to be taken seriously and seem to further the idea that there's an existing power relationship between men and women that necessitates their own list. Women wouldn't make the 100 Most Powerful List so let's create a list for them.

I'm going on a long diatribe to try to ask what happens when women can't even get on a list for women? The other day somebody pointed me to 25 Women Influencing IT Today. The list begins innocently enough with women in executive positions in Yahoo and Google. However it doesn't take long to reach a strange, if not insulting, turn. #141 Richest Woman in the World Oprah Winfrey clocks in at #10 because she has "become an online phenomenon and is the 9th most followed Tweeter on the web." Are we so lacking female role models in computing that we can't even build a list of 10 women influencing IT? Are our role models so dire that we have to list Oprah Winfrey who has as much credibility to be on the list as Britney Spears? Women have won the Turing Award 2 of the last 3 years but this list still suggests they aren't being seen as leaders in the tech industry. Modis may not be the Fortune 500 or Forbes but they do a considerable amount of IT Staffing across the country. If nothing else this points to a visibility problem in computer science and the need for more projects like The Ada Project. Women may still be getting stuck making their name on niche lists but they aren't doing the niche work. At the very least we need to be sure we're getting better female role models in computing than Oprah Winfrey.

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