Where are the “Hackers”? – FrenchWeb.fr

by bold-lichterman

Few professions present a “gender ratio” as unbalanced as the IT sector, and in particular the IT security branch, among hackers, those individuals who, according to Wikipedia, “Seek an understanding of the inner workings of systems, computers and computer networks” and whose ability to create value is more than ever emphasized.

The situation with hackers should not be far removed from that of the construction industry. Girls are rare there, however, machismo is not there anymore (no less) pronounced elsewhere – nothing to do with the construction industry anyway. No particular rejection of the fairer sex and no tacit rule of the celibacy type of priests rule it out.

Where are the women ™?

In History of Hackers (recent, however, if we trace it back to Alan Turing), only one female character appears on the hacking radar screen: Grace Hopper, the granny of hackers. Rear admiral in the US Navy, computer scientist, inventor (yes, it is said) of the first compiler (a fundamental thing) and of the concept of high level language – which is said of a computer language independent of a particular machine, that is almost all the programming languages ​​used today.

Grace Hopper weighed heavily on hacker culture, without her name going down to posterity like that of Alan Turing. The term “bug” in computer science came out of his imagination, ie. A real predisposition for abstraction and virtualization, and a very good start for the role of women in the history of computing and hacking. Or not. Because we will have to wait Parisa Tabriz, the “security princess” of Google, born in 1983, to put an end to 60 years of absence of the fairer sex from the history of hacking and computing in general. A shame, especially considering that the history of computers began in the 19th century with a woman, Ada lovelace.

On the long road to independence and the studies of women in the aftermath of the Second World War, in the world of computers, something is obvious when we look at the evolution of the proportion of women in university courses in 1984 something happened. While the scientific, medical or legal sectors saw the proportion of women climb, to end up not far from parity at the end of the 20th century, the computer sector, for its part, saw its gender ratio rapidly collapse in 1984.

Today, in the IT courses of American universities – and the situation is hardly better in France – there is on average one girl for six boys. Thirty years ago, a historic peak, there was one girl for two boys. Three more time.

1984, a year with decidedly fatal destinies for the world in general and for IT in particular. But for once, Orwell does not provide the shadow of an answer to the mystery of the computer scientist’s impending classification as an endangered species.

It is NPR, the American equivalent of Radio France, which points the finger at a designated culprit: marketing.

It was at the very beginning of the 1980s that personal microcomputers for “educational and family” use appeared. ZX81, Spectrum, Oric, Comodore 64, as well of course as the iconic Apple II (yes, I deliberately forgot MO5 and TO7) land on the shelves of the FNAC ™, which was cool at the time (I’m talking about of a time that the less than twenty years …).


But if the time was cool and “trendy”, marketing, without necessarily thinking badly, has visibly classified all over the Western world the “educational and leisure” computer alongside the Mechanic and most. construction games (Légo being an exception in its marketing at the time, obviously: Danes…). All these microcomputers were thus marketed as an opportunity to create a link between daddy and his son, as long as dad can pay half a minimum wage for his kid’s Christmas present.

It was my case. Dad would never have considered paying me a moped, and couldn’t afford to buy my sister a pony, but when it came to a computer, it was never a problem. At the same time, he’s a computer scientist (among other things), and he had an idea in his head.

But looking through the advertisements of the time, it is clear that the hype of the educational argument is often illustrated by junior’s future, which is played, of course, on the purchase of a computer.

The girls were almost absent from the advertisements, at best positioned behind, most of the time in spectators blissful feats achieved by a young male (ahead of the phase, it will take several decades before the geek is synonymous with sexy).

But in the 1980s, marketing had a huge influence on the world. And it worked.

From this first wave of heterogeneous leisure microcomputers, before Microsoft and then Apple standardized the horizon at the end of the 1980s, many vocations were born, full of passions, and hordes of computer scientists… males.

Integrating, post-baccalaureate, computer training quickly became impossible for those who had not been able, during their adolescence, to initiate themselves with these toys. A barrier to entry that was posed more to girls than to boys.

These first leisure computers were an opportunity for the more adventurous to learn by “deconstructing” the software that was running there, to modify them, or to do something else with it. A software designed to “manage the father’s wine cellar” became capable of distinguishing the grape varieties more finely, then transformed into a rudimentary stock management system. This software was particularly simple, if not simplistic. Free, most of the time, they were often written in very easy to access languages, such as Basic.

The “retro-engineering” thus found its fans, who broke away from the dominant species of “engineers”, and joined the small family of hackers, where the barrier to entry was much higher than that of a network. computer science in a university.

Bill Gates, at that time, will bet on shifting the value from hardware to software by “deconstructing” in the same way. CP / M to make it MS-DOS, the first brick of the Microsoft empire.

During this time, the education system, like popular culture, continued to encourage little boys to understand “how it works” by getting their hands dirty. Little girls were encouraged to master the way of making things work. What might have seemed like a good approach in order to make them climb the steps of power, pushed them a little further away from those who were then labeled as the “mechanics” of “new technologies”: the computer scientists.

Very bad calculation, because it is precisely in garages that at the same time the world was reinventing itself, initiating a financial then political transfer of power, hailed for a long time in the name of the productivity and growth gains generated in the old economy, until his lauders realized that yesterday’s rulers were being Uberized by packs of barbaric mechanics.

At Google, which is an example, 30% of employees are women, while they represent only 17% of employees in the technology sector in the United States. They are only 15% at Facebook and 10% at Twitter. Along with Hilton hotels and G7 taxis, women are the big losers in the digital revolution.

As for the little girls, the 90s were finally the occasion to familiarize themselves with the computer, which in the meantime had become “user friendly”, based on graphical interfaces hiding under mice and windows a complexity that it does It was no longer essential to understand in order to use them. This new generation of computer, the engine of the future ubiquity of personal computing, has also, and paradoxically, constituted a new barrier to the entry of “hacking”: to go beyond the stage of simple “user”, it was really necessary blame. With the arrival of “tablets”, the gap between users and those in the know is widening even more. In short, the problem is far from being resolved, on the contrary.

Two decades after these disastrous 80s which marked the exclusion of women from a large part of the field of innovation, at a summit in Davos in 2007, Bill Gates will respond in the following way to an audience made up of dignitaries Saudis questioning the performance of their economy: “To tell the truth, if you do not use half of the brains in your country, you are unlikely to reach the top.”

Wise words, which according to Bill – the anecdote comes out of Washington post – made half the audience laugh, under the burquas. But the males present in the room listened … And acts (somewhat).

And U.S ?

If the situation has greatly improved with regard to the access of young girls to computers, other obstacles still persist in culture, education, as well as within the communities that have been formed under it. a regime that discriminates particularly against women. Yet it is within these communities that the world of tomorrow is being built and that the major industries of the 21st century are being created. Amazon, Google, Uber … for 20 years now, a new world has been built by men, further aggravating the already poor condition of women in the old world, where the arrival of women was recently hailed as an achievement. the first woman at the head of the CAC40. There is an urgent need to act, if only to see the effects within a generation.

fabrice-epelboinFabrice Epelboin is a digital serial entrepreneur, he teaches the impact of information technologies on institutional and corporate governance at Sciences Po. Paris and advises large groups on their digital transformation.

LinkedIn: epelboin

Twitter: @epelboin

Photo on top: Parisa Tabriz, Chief Security Princess at Google. Infosec celebrity. credit: Brian Jones.