How to: Increase your computer literacy while female

Some women who are somewhat uncomfortable using computer technology express admiration for other women who love it. However, the women who are uncomfortable using computer technology may be unaware of the social and material obstacles due to systemic sexism that drastically reduce their chances of high computer literacy relative to men. Here are some heuristics for navigating these obstacles:

  1. Get your own computer.
  2. Get internet access, preferably broadband.
  3. Never ask a man for help in person.
  4. Google is your friend.
  5. When asking for help online, hide your gender.

1. Get your own computer.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that for all OECD countries, 15-year-old boys were more likely than 15-year-old girls to have computer access at home.

Findings from a detailed analysis of the relationship of access and use to students’ background, based on PISA 2000, reveal that in Canada, 15-year-old girls were less likely than boys to have a computer at home and less likely to have Internet access at home.

The gender difference for 15-year-olds was consistent across OECD countries. In all countries, boys were more likely than girls to have a computer available at home for use almost every day, a few times each week or between once a week and once a month.

[…]

The availability of computers at school did not reduce the difference between the sexes, as 15-year-old girls were still less likely to use computers at school.

The gender difference may be partly explained by differing attitudes of 15-year-old girls and boys towards computer use. Although 70% of boys felt that it was important to work with a computer, only 58% of girls felt the same way. About 85% of girls reported they felt comfortable using a computer, compared with 92% of boys.

Having computer access at school and at the public library does not address one of the most important components of becoming comfortable with computer technology: the freedom to tinker and experiment. At school and at the library, you do not have administrative privileges for your computer, and the restrictions on what you can and cannot do are arbitrary and determined by the given system administrator. This means that what you can or cannot do varies from the school computer to the public library computer to the internet cafe computer. The restrictions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and you will not be able to learn what you can really do with a computer.

This sounds unfair, of course, because computers are expensive and women are on average poorer than men. However, lacking access to resources is a real problem, and if you do not or cannot obtain your own computer, then you must have some exceptional natural ability or other extraordinary resources to provide you with even a fighting chance. If you are poor, high computer literacy may not be one of the top priorities in your case, and your money may be used for more productive things. However, the point stressed in this section is that the material requirements cannot be separated from the so-called ‘abstract’ dispositions towards computers. Women on average have less access to computer technology, and this is a fundamental problem.

Another important component to owning your own computer is that you will be less worried about ‘breaking’ it, compared to if you were borrowing a computer from a friend or family member. To attain high computer literacy, you need to be able to tinker and experiment with it, which means making mistakes, possibility breaking it (if you are doing something complicated), and trying fix and repair your computer from your own mistakes. This is how you learn.

2. Get internet access, preferably broadband.

Internet access is pretty much necessary for even just maintaining your computer nowadays, and the knowledge resource is indispensable.

Broadband internet access over dial-up internet access is not just a ‘luxury’. The difference between broadband and dial-up is more than just a matter of degree; it separates the have’s from the have not’s. If you do not have broadband internet access, not only will web pages load so slowly that it’s more productive to do other things than to be on the internet, but you will not be able to download important software to repair your computer or customize your computer experience for your own productivity.

The importance of having internet access is tied with the following point.

3. Never ask a man for help in person.

Some women have internalized sexist beliefs, and prefer to travel a distance to ask the random male than to ask the female next to her who knows better.

Anyway, if you ask a man for help while female in person, in most cases, you will not get the help you need. By even asking a man a computer question while female, the man usually assumes that you are a beginner computer user. It does not matter if you are a C++ programmer; the man may temporarily forget this and your mere gender will trigger a mental schema, in which you are not an individual, but a stereotype, the female ‘noob’. If a Microsoft program is actually buggy and crashes, and you are asking if others are experiencing the same problem, you may be asked something like, “Did you press the ‘X’ at the top right hand corner?”

Another problem is that when a woman asks a man a computer question, the man often sees it as an opportunity not to help you, but to make himself look ‘smart’ and impress you. Even if he is gay. The man may purposely obfuscate the answer and use technical jargon to make himself appear more intelligent. At other times, he may make up something if he does not know what he is talking about, and assume that you are less knowledgeable and will not find out.

If you should not ask a man in real life, and you do not know any female computer geeks personally, what should you do? See the next section.

4. Google is your friend.

Learn how to Google and use Google’s advanced search features. If you know how to use Google properly, you can find out that other people have the same computer problem and that there is a published solution, or you can find out that other people have the same problem but nobody on the Internet knows the solution. For the vast majority of cases, there is a posted solution.

Computer usage expertise is different from other knowledge domains in that the best way to access computer expertise is via the Internet. If you have a medical problem, you should probably consult a doctor in real life instead of taking advice from someone over the Internet. If you have a legal question, you should probably consult a legal consultant instead of taking advice from someone over the Internet. However, if you have a computer problem, the chances are that the experts on the Internet—online communities or persons who specialize in dealing with that piece of software—are much more knowledgeable than any random IT person or computer geek you know in real life.

This is a Very Good Thing™, because it means that you can usually find the solution without asking for help, and it means you don’t have to have somebody in real life behave condescendingly towards you in order to fix your computer problem or increase your computer knowledge.

Some basic Google search operators that people need to know to get relevant results are the negation sign (‘not’ operator) and quotation marks around a phrase. The quotation marks can turn a very general string of words into something very specific. For example, if you search for

what they realize they want comes easily to their

you get a whole bunch of unrelated search results, because these are very common words. On the other hand, if you put the string in quotation marks,

“what they realize they want comes easily to their”

you get something very specific: web pages that are quoting a specific passage from Edward Said’s Orientalism. (However, after Google indexes this post, this post will also show up in the search results.)

The ‘not’ operator, or negation sign, excludes a word or phrase from the search results. This is important for disambiguating search terms. For example, if you search for

ubuntu

the vast majority of the search results are about the operating system, Ubuntu Linux. If that’s not what you want, you can try to exclude search results about Ubuntu Linux by using the negation sign for the word ‘linux’:

ubuntu -linux

The search results exclude many but not all web pages about Ubuntu Linux (which is not a bad operating system, by the way), but you may find out that there is a Women of Color organization against sexual violence in North Carolina called ‘Ubuntu’.

You can also combine the quotation marks and negation sign to narrow your results. If you search for:

roots canada

you get results about a Canadian brand of clothing called “Roots” or “Roots Canada”. However, if you search for

roots canada -“roots canada”

which means you are searching for web pages with the words ‘roots’ and ‘canada’ but excluding pages that contain the term “roots canada”, you get search results about Canadian culture and history.

5. When asking for help online, hide your gender.

Unfortunately, computer geek communities are male-dominated and several decades behind mainstream society when it comes to sexism. Sometimes, if you cannot Google the answer to your question, you may need to register in a specific forum to get help. If you are asking for computer help instead of providing help to others, it is better to choose a gender-neutral name and not correct people when you are referred to as ‘he’.

This piece of advice is in no way feminist, by the way, as it does nothing to challenge the status quo, and perhaps reinforces the perception that women are not interested in computers. However, it is simply “not safe” to be visibly female and ask for help, and it may slow down the finding of the solution.

When you have a strange computer problem, the normal procedure is to not assume anything and to check the basic assumptions first to ‘debug’ the problem. If you have a strange computer problem, no matter what your gender is, you may be asked basic questions, like whether the power cord is plugged into the outlet, to eliminate these possibilities. However, if you reveal that you are female, you may be asked additional questions that go beyond possibilities of carelessness, or people may patronize you in other ways.

Of course, if you are a well-established member of a given community and feel no need to hide your gender, you can do whatever you want. However, if you feel you are not computer literate enough and that’s why you are reading this guide, you should hide your gender online when asking for help, to avoid potential abuse. This is for self-protection and for selfish reasons, not to make a political statement. (However, if you see another female being bullied in a help forum for no apparent reason, the ethical thing to do would probably be to stand up to the bully, potentially putting yourself and your ‘disguise’ at risk.)

This is not to say that most male computer geeks are blatantly sexist towards females asking for help, but there may be one particularly vile individual who may target you, while everyone else remains passive bystanders.

You don’t have to deal with this social problem when you are just trying to find an answer to a non-social computer problem. Keeping these two things separate—sexism in computer geek communities versus computer geekism itself— will shield you from being turned off by computers.

9 Responses to “How to: Increase your computer literacy while female”

  1. LLB Says:

    Good advice for anyone interested in computer literacy, including males (although they generally don’t have to worry about the two gender warnings).

    BTW, I run my laptop on ubuntu and have managed the entire enterprise (which is much more difficult than ubuntu on a desktop) with just Google and ubuntu’s forums (haven’t even registered to ask a question, just do a search and its almost guaranteed someone else has already asked it).

    Nothing replaces actually doing something for learning about it. The confidence that comes from having a computer to tinker makes a huge difference. I see it at play at my job all the time, with people asking me to fix things, when the only real difference between me and them is that I go into the situation believing I have a shot at fixing it, while they are ready to surrender before they’ve even tried.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    I feel that 1 and 2 are gender issues too. It seems like many parents are willing to shell out money and invest in a computer for a son, but they think that a shared family computer for a daughter is sufficient, because she’s not expected to use it as much anyway.

  3. LLB Says:

    Ah, I was thinking of the issue as someone independent of parents, and so didn’t see that aspect of it. Thanks (also, I never had a computer growing up. We didn’t have money for it)

  4. grandpa dinosaur Says:

    Isn’t the internet a hotbed of misogyny? I find it hard in the Anime Internet communities, the same people I will meet at Anime Clubs or Conventions and they will treat me nicely and when I see them online they’re treating women worse than second-hand furniture.

    But some girls are also not immune and fall into hypocrisy and will play along with guys, agreeing in a yes-man like way. (<= My personal experience) It gets pretty dangerous and it makes me really mad, I don’t know who to hate more: The guys who think that treating women badly is okay or the women who get blinded and buy into these anti-woman ideals.

    Sorry to derail, it just got me thinking.

    I have a tendency to choose odd or fighting based usernames, and people often mistake me for a male until they see my personal photos (but by then I have already built up enough respect and admiration that I do not fall under attack). I understand that women who are not careful or are not educated enough, come under attack.

    I have once been harassed through Facebook, a teenage boy threatened my family and I had to call the police. It wasn’t “serious,” I’m a fighter in my own but at my age I have to “set an example” for others.

    Thanks for writing this, it totally reminded me to be on my guard, but I’m still going to have fun. I’m not going to have the net bullies rule the internets after all. Because the good and bad thing about the internet is that they can create their own spaces, but so can we.

  5. Restructure! Says:

    Yes, people usually assume that I’m male and white, and I generally don’t put my personal photos online to random internet people, especially if I’m writing about controversial things.

    Unfortunately, even offline, there is a “stupid male geek culture”. I wish I could talk more about work, but maybe after it’s in the past. . .

    Male geek culture needs more geek, and less irrelevant, non-geek stuff like misogyny.

  6. Joseph Becher Says:

    While I don’t quite agree with your post I appreciate the link to my page :)

  7. joan Says:

    I only just found your blog and I’m totally enjoying your posts. :)

    I <3 Ubuntu. I was greatly saddened when I read about this recent debacle: http://www.wkowtv.com/Global/story.asp?S=9667184, where a woman in WI accidentally purchased a laptop with Ubuntu on it. This publicity made both women AND Ubuntu look bad. :/

  8. jwbe Says:

    Just want to tell you, I now had a problem with my computer software. First I asked on a msb were people ‘know’ me and my gender. The answers there weren’t helpful, one (male) said: ‘buy another anti-virus software or deinstall your internet provider’s software, there are no other solutions and I know what I am talking about.’

    I registered on another forum. I was thinking about your post and registered with a male name. Within minutes I got 2 answers and I could solve the problem easily with 5 mouse clicks.

  9. Zaibatsu was a hidden black man on Digg. « Restructure! Says:

    […] joined Digg in 2006, and like in the past, I signed up with a gender-neutral and race-neutral username. I then abandoned that account, and for several reasons, I signed up […]


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