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Through Women’s Eyes

Robin Abrams

August 31, 1995 – UN/NGO Forum on Women, Beijing, China


It’s a great honor to be here in Beijing on the occasion of the Fourth World Conference on Women.

I’d like to thank Irene Santiago, Executive of the NGO Forum on Women and Supatra Masdit, Convenor of the Forum, for giving Apple Computer the opportunity to participate. We are thrilled to able to put our technology into the hands of individuals who are promoting one of the greatest causes of this — or any other — time: improving the status of women around the world.

As a woman in the computer industry, I’d like to talk about the unique origins of this industry, the status of women in technology today, as well as some of the ways in which I believe that women have — and will continue to have– a significant impact in this field.

In other words, in keeping with the theme of this conference — “Looking at the World Through Women’s Eyes” — I’d like to take a look at the world of technology through women’s eyes.

During the next hour or so, I will invite a couple women to join me on stage to share their experiences and perspectives.

In so doing, we’ll explore some of the successes and opportunities for women in computing in three key areas: as industry leaders, as engineering talent, and as day-to-day users.

Looking at Technology Through Women’s Eyes

Like many other scientific and industrial fields, technology-based industries have essentially been defined and dominated by men.

Of course, women have played significant roles in the development of science and technology, but for the most part, they are some of history’s best kept secrets, often even among women themselves.

For example, how many of you knew that the very first real computer programmer was a woman? Ada Byron King, the Countess of Lovelace and daughter of poet Lord Byron, was a prominent mathematician in the mid-1800s. She worked along side her better-known male colleague, Charles Babbage, on the first mechanical computing machines.

Before her, there were a magnificent array of even lesser-known women scientists and technologists from around the world: there was Hypatia, an Egyptian mathematician in the 400s; Maria Gaetana Agnesi, known for her work in differential calculus in the 1700s; and Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, a Russian mathematician and astronomer in the 1800s.

In this century, there’s the incomparable Grace Hopper, a PhD in mathematics who was a key leader in the field of software development, contributing to the transition from primitive programming techniques to the use of sophisticated compilers, and working with the first large-scale electronic digital computers.

A true visionary, Dr. Hopper received many awards for her work, including — ironically — the Data Processing Management Association’s “Man-of-the-Year” award!

Dr. Hopper’s work is particularly inspirational as she was among the first to conceptualize how a much wider audience could use the computer if it were made more “user-friendly.”

As you may know, this idea of making computers easy-to-use, and of putting the power of technology into the hands of individuals, is at the heart of the philosophy of Apple Computer.

Personal computing as we know it today had its roots in the mid-1970s, when three ideas converged and led to what is now known as “the computer revolution.”

First and fundamentally, was the fact that microprocessor technology had become affordable for ordinary purposes. Engineers at Intel miniaturized the electronic circuitry; in the process, they made it much less expensive.

The small size, and relatively low cost of this technology meant that computing power previously found only in mainframe computers in the air-conditioned back rooms of large corporations, could be brought home.

This was hot stuff if you were an engineer or a programmer. But for most people, it didn’t really have much meaning. That is, until the second vision — pioneered by Grace Hopper — was realized: If you could make computing technology easy to use, more people would use it.

Not just enthusiasts and engineers. But students, teachers, people in business and the arts… people who would use computers for what they could accomplish, not because they had any interest in the underlying technology.

The third insight was that if you could put this incredible computing power into the hands of thousands — even millions of people — it would trigger a revolution in the way that people think, work, learn and play, create a common ground for communication, and open a vast array of information resources to people around the world.

The convergence of these three elements really marked the beginning of the personal computing industry as we know it today.

I mention this as more than just historical reference. I mention it in the context of this conference on women because these are ideas which are quite relevant to understanding the status of women in regard to technology today.

In the United States about 35 percent of American families now have computers, and more than 80 percent of these have been purchased and primarily used by males, perhaps because they are the ones more likely to have the money. In other countries, the statistics show an even larger gap.

Most of the studies and examples I’ll site today, are drawn from women’s experiences in the United States, because that’s where we have the most research and can see most clearly the gender differences in technology access and usage. For other countries, the US trends can serve as both a warning, and as a way to identify the challenges and opportunities for women and technology.

In fact, as technology reaches into emerging markets in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, we can may benefit from the experiences of women more developed technology markets. We’ve already seen examples of where women and men in these countries have been able to take advantage of the early experiences of others to avoid patterns of discrimination as well as to leap-frog to new and better technologies and solutions.

There have been a number of studies in the US on the different ways in which women and men tend to view computing technologies.

Recent research has found that men are seduced by the technology itself. They tend to get into the faster-race-car syndrome, bragging about the size of their ‘discs’ or the speed of their microprocessors.

Women tend to take a more practical approach. They generally think that machines are meant to be used, and don’t really care about what’s inside the box. They just want it to work, and to get things done.

In another intriguing study by the Center for Children and Technology, men and women in technical fields were asked to dream up machines of the future. Men typically imagined devices that could help them “conquer the universe,” whereas women created machines that “meet people’s needs.”

The study concluded that “most women, even those who are technologically sophisticated, think of machines as a means to an end,” whereas men think of the machines as an extension of their own power, as a way to “transcend physical limitations.”

Moreover, research has found that these patterns — these different ways of looking at technology — kick in at a very early age. In the US, boys and girls tend to be equally interested in computers until they are about 10 years old. At that point, boys’ use rises significantly and girls’ use drops.

Looking behind the statistics, we see that most children are first introduced to computers in their homes and at school through games, and that the vast majority of games software is developed by men.

The predominant themes of recreational computer games are war, battles, crimes, destruction, and traditionally male-oriented sports and hobbies. As girls tend to prefer nonlinear games, where there’s more than one direction to take, where you can work in groups, and where no one “dies” on screen, it’s really no surprise that computers have greater appeal to young men than young women.

As Time Magazine said in an article last year, “Why do you think they call it “Game Boy?”

The alarming thing about all this is that experience in computer use, and the resulting comfort with and affinity for computing, can have a strong impact on subsequent decisions to enter technology businesses, to study computer and related sciences, and even on the ability to use technology for one’s own benefit.

The good news is that the future growth of computing companies — in both hardware and software — is in reaching more people with an ever-wider range of interests. As the early market has been predominantly males, the next wave of computer purchasers and users must necessarily be more and more female.

This means that the practicality of computers is becoming as valued as their speed and power. Software content is as important — if not more important — as hardware innovation. In short, we’re at a cultural turning point. There’s an opportunity to remake the culture around people’s needs, instead of the machine.

So, somewhat ironically, gender differences of the past could help the girls and women of today and tomorrow. If the computer industry wants to put more and more machines in the hands of the masses, that means appealing to women — along with the great many men who have no interest in hot-rod computing — with practical, accessible technology tools.

Women in the Business of Technology

But for the present, women are vastly underrepresented in all aspects of the computer industry.

On the business side, a recent US Department of Labor study reports that women are not successfully moving beyond mid-management boundaries in this industry– in fact, there’s been only a 3% gain in the past 10 years.

There are no women CEOs running major computer manufacturing companies around the world, and only a few at the helm of software companies.

As you might expect, many of the problems encountered by women in entering and achieving leadership roles in technology professions are the same ones we’ve seen in other fields. They are many of the same issues that are being addressed at this conference… issues like gender bias, lack of role models, and difficulty in balancing personal and professional responsibilities. I’ll talk a bit more about these factors later.

The reality is, that although it may be new technology, the old rules still apply.

In addition, there are unique characteristics of this discipline that pose unusual problems for women. The culture — or more accurately, the “cult” — of technology is distinguished by an elite “hacker” system. People who are successful in this system are expected to have certain characteristics. You may be familiar with the stereotype: obsessive allegiance to technology involving all night hacking sessions, obscene amounts of caffeine and chocolate, a vocabulary of acronyms, and a total disregard for personal hygiene.

Of course, these traits may be as distasteful to males as females, but the situation is likely to be more pronounced for females who, because of the differences in early experiences are less likely to want to participate in a culture of this kind.

The good news here is that this is a relatively new industry, and there’s opportunity to change it before behaviors and expectations become too entrenched.

The other good news is that there’s a strong trend in businesses of all kinds to reach new markets with custom products, services and support. For technology companies this means that diversity among its employees — in gender, race, social, political and educational background — is a great advantage.

As computing solutions expand beyond the traditionally male dominated markets, success will be more and more dependent upon understanding the needs of specific groups of customers, and will necessarily involve the knowledge and insights of an increasingly diverse workforce.

As this trend takes root and grows, I think we’ll see more and more women with increasingly diverse backgrounds taking strategic business roles within technology companies.

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t want to be promoted or held back in technology businesses, or any other field, because we are women. We want to be accepted, challenged and rewarded on our own merit.

We know from many experiences in the past, that asking for, depending on, or expecting someone else — especially someone comfortably situated within the male-dominated power structure — to make our lives better or easier, doesn’t work. It’s why we are all gathered here. We have chosen to take responsibility and to do something about it ourselves.

As a group, women must be dedicated to improving the status of women in technology and to helping women advance to the highest levels of responsibility.

Individually, we must be committed to growth and self-improvement. We must consider ourselves principled, effective and capable of assuming great leadership roles. We must believe we can contribute to solving world problems and making things better in very small and very big ways. Because we can… and do.

Despite the odds against it, there are some extraordinary women in the business of technology.

At Apple Computer, our key communications vice president is Barbara Krause, and we have two outstanding women vice presidents, Jeanne Seeley and Maryann Cusenza, in key finance roles. In addition, an extraordinary businesswoman sits on our Board of Directors, Ms. Kathryn Hudson.

Women are making great inroads in challenging assumptions and creating visions for technology. Two key leaders in this area are technology writer, New York Times columnist and pundit Denise Caruso, and Esther Dyson, the editor of a leading industry newsletter called Release 1.0.

As I mentioned, although there are no CEOs of computer manufacturing firms, there are a number of women who lead software development companies. These include: Heidi Roisen, President & CEO, T-Maker; Judith Estrin, President & CEO, Precept Software, Inc.; Sally Narodick, CEO, Edmark; and, Carol Bartz, CEO of AutoDesk.

Women and Education

So progress is being made in the business of technology. What about in education, and in technical and engineering fields?

On of the great untold story in this area is the dramatic increase in the educational attainment of women in the past 20 years.

Some researchers hold that although gender bias may exist in schools — in the form lack of compelling software, or of teachers calling more often on boys than on girls, for example — the same researchers conclude that it is not clear that this helps boys at all.

Consider this: In the US, while boys get higher scores in mathematics and science on average, girls get higher scores in reading and writing. At the same time, boys in the eighth grade are 50 percent more likely than girls to be held back a grade, and boys in high school constitute 68 percent of the “special education” population.

Twenty years ago more boys went on to college than girls; today the reverse is true. 67 percent of female high school graduates go to colleges, compared with 58 percent of male high school graduates.

Today women receive 54 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 53 percent of all masters degrees. In 1970, only 14 percent of all doctoral degrees went to women, and today that figure is up to 39 percent.

Women and Engineering

But if we examine the kinds of degrees represented within these numbers, we start to see great discrepancies among men and women.

The Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, notes that while women represent 45% of employed workers in the United States, they represent only 30% of computer programmers, and only 10% of employed doctoral level computer scientists.

The fact is that women in engineering and computer science programs terminate their training much earlier than men do. This pattern of decreasing representation at successively higher educational levels has been described as “pipeline shrinkage”.

At the high school level, we see almost equal numbers of young men and young women enrolled in computer science and engineering courses. By the time they get to college the ratio changes to 31 percent women and 69 percent men in bachelor’s degree programs, and then to 28 percent and 72 percent, respectively, for master’s degrees.

At the doctoral level the split is even more dramatic with 89 percent of PhDs in computer and engineering degrees awarded to men, and a mere 11 percent to women.

The discrepancy between the numbers of men and women continues to increase when we look at the people who are training the future computer scientists: Women currently hold only 13 percent of assistant professorships at North American colleges and universities, 8 percent of associate professorships, and a mere 4 percent are fully-tenured professors. In fact, a third of the departments at the colleges and universities surveyed in this particular study have no female faculty members at all.

Clearly, to increase the number of women in industrial computer science, we need to consider why women stop their training earlier than men. There are a number of aspects of the scientific and engineering culture that act against women in this regard, and there are a few obvious things that can be done.

For example, more education software appealing to girls should be developed and educators must make a concerted effort to ensure equal access to computers for boys and girls.

More far reaching solutions are less tangible. What seems to be needed is increased sensitivity on the part of male computer scientists and engineers to their female students and colleagues, increased awareness by women so that they will not be easily discouraged, and, quite simply, an increased number of women in the field.

Here again, despite the odds, there are a number of extraordinary female contributors in the field.

There’s Dr. Frances Allen, a Fellow at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, Dr. Anita Borg, a Consultant Engineer associated with the DEC Network Systems Laboratory (and the founder of “Systers” an online service for women), Dr. Joan Feigenbaum, a Member of the Technical Staff at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, Dr. Adele Goldberg, the Chair of parcplace Systems and former scientist and laboratory manager of Xerox PARC, and Dr. Irene Grief, Director of Workgroup Technologies for Lotus and a former faculty member at the University of Washington and MIT.

At Apple, we are seeing women moving into key engineering roles. One is Jackie Streeter who is our Senior Director of Engineering Interface and Design.

Another, who is with us today, is Sheila Brady. A true Apple star, Sheila is the Director of the Macintosh Operating Systems Team. She’s been with Apple for nearly ten years driving many software development projects leading teams of mostly male engineers. She says she vacillates wildly between taking everything too seriously, and taking nothing seriously enough. I’ll let you be the judge of that. Please welcome… Sheila Brady.

(Sheila Brady demonstrated new Apple technologies and described her experiences as a women leading a team of predominately male engineers.)

Women, Education and Technology

As I mentioned before, the earliest encounters that children have with computing technologies are far from gender neutral. The recreational software programs young people first see tend to reflect the gender biases and stereotypes of their makers. That means most games are designed with boys in mind.

This pattern appears to carry over into educational software as well. In fact, in one experimental setting, when teachers of both genders were asked to design software for students, they tended to build programs that have characteristics that boys prefer, and few of the characteristics that girls prefer, even when the teachers are aware of these differences.

So what we find is that the vast majority of educational software carries themes of power, sports and dominance, and therefore does little to compel young women to use computers.

Fortunately, there are a new generation of software developers who understand this phenomenon quite well, and who are designing programs that are making enthusiasts out of unsuspecting young women.

I happen to know a couple of these unsuspecting young women quite well, who have agreed to show us some of their favorite education applications.

Please welcome my daughters, Libby and Sarah.

(Libby and Sarah Abrams, ages 6 and 11 respectively, showed a number of educational software programs.)

As you can see, despite the current imbalance in educational software, there are some extraordinary people making some extraordinary new products for extraordinary young women with extraordinary results.

Thanks to Sheila, Libby and Sarah!

What Can We Do?

What can we do to expand the pipeline for women, bring more girls into the mainstream of technology and provide compelling reasons for them to pursue careers, and to use technology for their benefit?

There are at least three things we can focus on:

1) We must combat gender bias and discrimination in every situation and every way we can.

Ideally, the representation of women in the power structure of a community or organization should reflect their numbers in that community or organization.

Patronizing behavior and assumptions that women are less qualified or committed than men, regardless of whether the assumptions are conscious or unconscious, must stop.

We must also support the growing trend to create software and applications that compel children and adults of both genders to use and benefit from technology tools.

2) We must address head-on the lack of mentoring programs for women and girls and make sure that role models are more numerous and highly visible.

Mentors and role models play a crucial, though usually informal, role in personal growth, and in training for all professions, and it’s clear that role models are important at all stages in personal and professional life.

This is particularly important in technology businesses and computer sciences because the number of available female mentors and role models shrinks as one progresses through the pipeline.

While young women can benefit from mentors of either gender, it is desirable for women to be exposed to females in higher level positions. A role model can serve as evidence that a successful career in computer science, for example, is not only a possibility, but a normal and even unremarkable option for women.

Role models and mentors are perhaps even more important to younger women and girls. Without them, girls may lose interest or end studies in technology fields prematurely, and for the wrong reasons.

3) We must make sure that the difficulties in balancing career and family responsibilities are overcome.

Concern with this problem has led some young women to abandon the possibility of such a career at a very early stage in their training.

Women considering careers in computer science are not very different from women in a wide range of other careers… or, for that matter, from many men in those careers. Last April, a New York Times article noted that, “Fathers, too, are seeking a balance between their families and careers.”

It must be possible for both men and women to work hard and well at a career, without neglecting their personal lives. No one should have to choose one at the expense of the other. Both men and women should have the right, and often have the obligation, to have careers.

There are a variety of ways to support this. We need find ways to provide quality childcare, to improve maternity and paternity leave policies in the workplace, to look into job sharing possibilities, and to allow those who must, to work from home.

Ultimately, a lot hinges on increasing the number of women in the field. We must make sure that increased representation of women is not stalled, but rather accelerated, by of the policies and practices of educators and employers, of congresses and corporations.


In short, looking at technology through women’s eyes doesn’t mean rose-colored glasses and pink computers.

It means concerted action to involve women in leadership positions in engineering and the business of technology.

It means special attention in the development of software, ensuring that it is relevant, even inspiring, to both young men and young women.

It means creating machines that are accessible, that meet people’s needs, and help them get things done.

Because computers in and of themselves aren’t revolutionary. It’s what people can do with them that’s truly remarkable.

One of the very best examples of this is the development and management of the technology infrastructure for running this conference. I am extremely proud of the team of Apple people and volunteers, predominantly women, who worked with the offices of the NGO committee and UN Secretariat to conceive and implement the computer services for this extraordinary event.

Led by Bev Valdez, this team of more than 80 talented young people has designed, implemented and is now running the technology infrastructure for the business centers which are scheduling more than 5,000 meetings and other activities, and registering more than 35,000 attendees.

They have also put together and are supporting the Press Center enabling the almost 3,000 members of the media to write and file stories about the actions and activities here.

They are supporting the NGO team which is writing, designing and publishing the daily newspaper that you have seen here.

They have put together the “Exploring Your Potentials” training center, where you can experience first-hand how Apple technology can enhance the way you work, learn and communicate. I urge you to take a look at this center which is located in Building 17.

In addition, they have integrated some HP systems with our Macintosh computers, and worked with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) enabling us to transmit documents to the UN negotiations in Beijing, and to NGOs around the world via the Internet.

I haven’t mentioned much about the Internet today, but it’s not because it’s not tremendously important. Many of the NGOs have been using the Internet for research and electronic mail for a number of years, and others are just coming online. But the impact, particularly in planning for this conference has been tremendous.

For example, women in the former Yugoslavia have been exchanging ideas for workshops and funding for this forum via email. In Africa, email use for the Beijing process has just begun to be used with information received via one of the few Internet connections available there being repackaged and sent out by fax or snail mail.

In short, women from around the women are “getting the net.” We need to make sure that this trend continues and that we are linked up everyday via digital communications, not just every few years.

Final Words

At the beginning of this session, I talked about the three fundamental elements that formed the personal computing industry we know today.

Looking at those again, we can see a clear path to making technology a beneficial part of our everyday lives.

First of all, reducing costs of technology and making it accessible to people of from all countries and of both genders is a first and fundamental step.

Second, making technology tools that are easy-to-use to accomplish practical tasks, is key to involving more people — including women and girls — in using computers.

And third, putting the power of technology in the hands of many, many people — giving them access to information and to each other — will provide opportunities for interaction and discussion and build communities of interest. The resulting group efforts can and will lead to solutions to social, political and economic concerns and improve the quality of life for everyone.

At Apple, we recognize the importance of this technology and our responsibility to help shape it. Our vision is based and built on our founding philosophy: to give people like you and me tools which inspire us to achieve great things that will help us change our world for the better.

Today, more than 20 million users of Apple computers are changing the world, whether it’s in the classroom, the boardroom, the living room — or in NGO organizations, the UN Secretariat, or the highest levels of government and industry.

Our goal is to design products and provide tools that elicit the best in people — a spirit of creativity, exploration, courage, confidence, and enthusiasm.

We want to make the power of high technology accessible to the individual, create tools for the mind, and change the world one person at a time.

I’m proud to have had the opportunity to participate in the personal computer revolution, and especially today, in this conference.

This event is truly a celebration of people who are making a difference — in their own lives and in the lives of others.

It’s a festival of the human spirit — of the passion and the power that lies within each one of us.

It’s testament to the impact of individuals — in this case, exceptional women from around the world — working together and showing how they can overcome challenges to really change the world.

Thank you.



Copyright 1995 by Robin Abrams. All rights reserved.