CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

February 8, 2001 Mary Flanagan is on the digital warpath for women



Communications Studies professor Mary Flanagan.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj.

by Amy Paradis

Through her politically-charged digital media art, Mary Flanagan is on a mission to make the increasingly valued world of computer technology accessible to everyone.

“Most of those who make money off technology are white males,” the Communication Studies professor pointed out, “and the women in Malaysia who make the computer parts aren’t exposed to the technology. There really are the haves and have-nots.”

Closer to home, women are often the have-nots in computer technology. The current lack of female influence in the field is a major reason for a low interest among girls.

“I’m a girl,” said Flanagan, taking a break from brainstorming on the computer in the corner of her office, “and there are certain things that girls find more appealing than boys.” But as a former producer and designer at a software company, Flanagan has seen first-hand how companies have repeatedly turned out girl-targeted products limited to stereotypes like shopping and hairstyles.

“Girls have been a neglected category in consumer research,” Flanagan said. “Most research is used to figure out what to sell to girls. What is really needed is social change and new role models.”

Flanagan moved to Montreal in August from New York, where she was an assistant professor of media studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Although she has been involved in video production since she was 15, she had little formal training in programming, since there were few courses offered on it at the time.

“When I did need help, my coworkers, mostly fraternity members, were happy to give me a hand. There I was, with my blue-collar background working with these privileged guys who had computers in their dorm rooms.

“I was willing to take a lot,” she said with a smile, adding that it must have been worse for women like Grace Hopper, who made a significant impact on the computer field in the early-to-mid 1900s. “But I was dogged and I love making media.”

Now, with handfuls of completed and in-the-making 3-D navigable projects, ranging from [phage], an award-winning (and computer-friendly) feminist “virus” to The Adventures of Josie True, an interactive game for girls, Flanagan is strengthening women’s role in an ever-growing digital environment. And to combat the presuppositions that technology is only made for those who have the money to experience it, many of Flanagan’s works are available for free on her Web site.

Flanagan and her students at SUNY Buffalo developed The Adventures of Josie True for math and science-loving girls aged nine to 11. Josie, a 11-year-old Chinese-American detective, must find Ms. Trombone, her missing science teacher/inventor, by solving math and science problems. She is whisked off to 1920s Chicago and Paris, where players are introduced to the first female African American aviator, Bessie Coleman.

By getting girls of that age interested in the sciences — and at the same time teaching them about lesser-known female achievers — Flanagan hopes that the thirst for technology will increase among girls and women. In 1999, while Canadian eighth-graders were among the top students in the Third International Math and Science Study, the girls participating in the study performed worse than their male counterparts in science.

“Until around age 11, girls and boys get similar test scores in math and science. After that, girls’ scores begin to suffer,” she said, emphasizing with her hands the rising scores for the boys, and the plummeting grades for girls. Along with teaching and creating, Flanagan is currently participating in a project to develop a “woman-friendly” computer technology certificate.

In the year-long communication programming course that Flanagan now teaches, the gender split is roughly 50/50, compared with the male-majority classes she taught at SUNY Buffalo. And once she can apply for Canadian grant money after claiming permanent residency, Flanagan says she would love to get her students involved in one of her works. “Concordia students have a lot to offer — the project could be bilingual.”

Selected works by Communication Studies professor and digital media artist Mary Flanagan, including The Adventures of Josie True, are available on her Web site: http://www.maryflanagan.com.

The Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science will hold its annual Engineers of Tomorrow event for pre-university young women on March 5.