Brainmatters | Escaping from the nerd bubble


Before joining TU Eindhoven as a doctoral candidate, I spent a short period working as a programmer. In the last decade of the twentieth century research jobs for a recently graduated psychologist were few and far between, and nor was my background in artificial intelligence any help back then, when AI was still slumbering as if through a winter's night.

Sitting at home unemployed also seemed like a non-starter so I went to work as a junior systems analyst for a small ICT secondment agency, now swallowed up by PinkRoccade. Complete with a small red lease car and 100 Dutch Guilders for a tie and jacket, I was sent off to bang out pieces of code at various companies.

My work space was a cubicle, a sort of nerd bubble with a work station, enclosed by three head-high white partition walls, which most people will recognize from the superlative Dilbert strips. Not the most motivating work environment, to be honest, and only made worse by the almost complete absence of women. A few women worked for this company as, clichéd but true, secretaries or HR officers, but I came across none employed as a programmer or manager. At that time I couldn't fault them, these absent women. There are more exciting things in life than the Y2K problem (oh yes, people, as the 1990s came to a close it was a real worry) or building upward compatibility into the legacy systems of banks and government.

Escape from the cubicle

But times change, and quickly. ICT has escaped from the cubicle and now permeates the whole of our society and daily life. In the twenty years separating my programming job and my professorship, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Wikipedia, Netflix, Amazon, AirBnB, Alibaba, Tinder and Uber have come into existence. Apple has launched the iPhone, and AI is full of beans after its winter sleep, thanks to a happy union between machine learning and big data.

Virtually no innovation or service is now conceivable in which computers are not an integral part, and this shapes how we interact with one another, how we form our opinions, how we shop, how we work, how we relax, encounter one another, and how we discover, learn and study. Our society is not shaped by politicians but by programmers: hackers and whiz kids, digital artists and app developers, data miners and game designers. All of them putting an ever greater mark on our experience of the world. Even today, however, the proportion of women in this field is lamentably low, and that has become a serious problem that we urgently need to address. Why? Four reasons.

Greater diversity = better solutions

Firstly, we look to technology to solve problems. A greater diversity in perspectives results in better solutions. Simple. Secondly, technology is not used exclusively by the half of the population who are men. Women's needs are better served by people who are familiar with the female perspective. Hmmm, who could we ask to provide that?

Thirdly, a lack of diversity (in gender, as well as in race, culture, etc) leads unintentionally and often unwittingly to the technological embedding of values, prejudices and opinions that are highly specific to our men's nerd bubble, but not necessarily a true reflection of a richly varied society. A healthy high-tech ecosystem cannot flourish if only a small subset of the population is involved in the development of products and services that touch us all.

Fourthly, and this is an argument that I venture to put forward partly on behalf of all the executive boards of Philips, NXP, ASML and our own TU/e, without women we are missing half our potential workforce in high-tech industry and science - a drain on resources we cannot afford.

And don't say I said this, but I simply find my work much more enjoyable with women in the workplace. Communication is better, people are more attentive to one another, personally I feel more inclined to use my own “female” qualities, and the ambiance in the group as a whole improves. I left that cubicle twenty years ago with good reason.

Wijnand IJsselsteijn | Professor of Cognition and Affect in Human-Technology Interaction

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