Saturday, August 09, 2014

When did metadata become something men thought they knew more about?

[Just a heads up that this post has very little to do with language teaching and learning or e-learning :-) ]

A story in the news this week on ‘metadata’, followed by a program on the radio about 'women coders' reminded me of how far we still have to go with some gender equity issues.

The first was the Australian government's proposal to change the policy on the retention of communication data (see Infographic: Metadata and data retention explained and Attorney-General George Brandis struggles to explain Government's metadata proposal).

The second was this week’s episode of Download This Show on ABC Radio National
Data Retention, women coders, second Second Life? , which discussed the government's proposed scheme, and also a story on encouraging women into software development.

Years ago when I was consulting on a project to develop a portal for government information, one of the things I was responsible for was ‘metadata’.  This was probably the first time I had heard the term, but from what I read about it, it seemed to be the stuff I’d been doing for years as a librarian, but with a specifically IT focus.  I went along to a government workshop on metadata to find out more, and was surprised to find that most of the workshop participants were information ‘technology’ people and not information ‘management’ people.  During the workshop introduction, most of the questions thrown out to the group were answered by either myself or the only other woman there (amongst about 30-40 men), who also turned out to be a librarian.  When it came to the practical session, we all had to share computers.  The blokey-bloke I was paired with, who had until then been hogging the computer, pushed the keyboard across to me and said, “You can do this as it’s obviously librarian’s work”. I am absolutely sure this was intended in a very derogatory way, as in “this is obviously women’s work”, as he and most of the other blokes had mostly lost interest once the group had determined that metadata wasn’t some sexy new IT thing but the stuff that librarians had been doing for years!  I just as quickly slid the keyboard back to him saying, “On the contrary, this is something you need to learn!”  I’m pretty sure that most of those blokes learnt nothing and went back to their offices and decided that some lesser beings (women/librarians/women librarians?) should be doing all the metadata stuff while they focused on something more fitting to their superior skills.

Long before I was in this consulting job, I had worked as a systems analyst/computer programmer.  In my department we had 6 staff developing software (including the manager), and 3 of us were women.  This was a higher percentage of men than in my previous work as a librarian, but I don’t remember feeling it was different or unusual at the time.  I do remember getting odd, possibly sexist, comments from some of the staff at that workplace, but had at the time thought that was also possibly due to fact that I had moved from being a librarian there to the programming job.  But as I reflected on that time following the radio program this morning, I started recalling more instances that made me rethink this analysis.  I remember clearly one comment from when I went out to fix a printer (we did everything in those days IT related: installing cables, backing up the mainframe, training users in the programs we wrote, help desk, etc.) and a bloke asked if I knew what I was doing - I responded by pointing out that I’d been fixing photocopiers in the library for years, “Printer, photocopier, same difference!”  I remember another bloke expressing great surprise seeing me sitting on the floor soldering cables to connect the PC in his office.  I think I stayed quiet that time, hoping he would crawl back into his cave.  I also remember my manager returning from an IT expo and mentioning that one of the vendors had "girlies in fishnet stockings and sailor hats" handing out brochures to the (almost entirely male) customers - blech!

The radio program worried me as I would have hoped that we had moved on from this type of scenario in the intervening 20-25 years, but it seems that women and girls may not even be considering work in IT areas as an option.  I've since changed careers yet again and now work as an English language teacher, which seems to be a profession as heavily female-dominated as librarianship (at least in my workplace, but also judging by the participants at a recent conference I attended) so I haven't given this much thought for a while.

So this week I have been thinking about this and, as I asked at the beginning, "When did metadata become something men thought they knew more about?"  I almost felt sorry for the Attorney-General, except that I feel people in these roles need to make sure they are across all the issues before fronting up to the press, and should take questions on notice when they're not sure of the answers.    On the other hand, I wonder what the media coverage would have been like if the Attorney-General making the comments had been a woman?  Would she have been ridiculed further, possibly with a suggestion that it was too much to expect a woman to know about such 'technical' things?  But then there was another story this week (*) that suggests that another government minister thinks there is a place for women and that place isn't dentistry and law, and probably isn't politics either (sigh!).

I'm not sure this post even belongs on this blog it being so off-topic, but I couldn't help sharing my thoughts on this, even though I suspect no one will read them :-)

(*) Full interview here:

UPDATE: Excellent recent article on similar themes:
What India Can Teach Silicon Valley About Its Gender Problem By Vikram Chandra