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Why are there so few females in engineering and tech fields?

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I've been thinking about this topic somewhat the past few months, but I wanted some other opinions and thoughts.

Why are there so few females in tech fields? I'm especially thinking of computer science, information technology, and engineering. I've taken many IT classes at my university, and a few CS courses, and it'd be surprising to see any more than 2 females. All males wouldn't be all that strange, either. Similar disparities exist in a field like fashion, too (I took 2 semesters of fashion courses at another school, and I was the only male in two of the classes, and 1 of 2 in another), though that's not my focus right now. A disparity at all is fine and nothing to really make a big deal about, but in this case, the statistics appear significant and indicate something less-than-good. I absolutely would not blame “the patriarchy” as some feminists may say. If that's not the cause, then what is?

All I can really think of is societal norms not really encouraging of anyone female to take on science and technology. Then again, I don't think I remember when I was in elementary school that even males were encouraged to take on science and technology. It would seem more so that it's not much more than females being thought of as more emotional than males. A sort of thing not viewed as all that conducive towards systematic thought which is part of science. Of course reason and emotion matter, but being “more emotional” would tend towards non-scientific fields. That isn't something in the nature of males and females, so the idea is irrational and baseless. But that's what I can point to where some females may choose to avoid science, or at the least never develop a technology interest. Not everyone enjoys technology equally, sure, but you'd think that there'd be at percentages between 40 and 60, because there are about 51% females in the population anyway.

Social interactions are complex, and I couldn't say precisely where else to think further. But what can be done about it? The only reason I say anything should be done is because there is an indication of some irrational cause. Around here, I'm sure I don't need to explain why affirmative action is a bad idea. I don't think programs oriented towards females are beneficial either (say, “Women Engineers of Whatever”). That only makes it more a social norm to keep male and female activities separate, and try to treat a demographic within a field as inherently special. I really don't have any ideas, only ideas of what wouldn't work.

I'd like some more thoughts before I say anything more.

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I'm going to be a junior in CS, so I'll share my two-cents..

I literally hear about the lack of women in IT every single day. Not that it shouldn't be noticed..but at my school, they make a huge point to "encourage" more women to switch their majors to CS & Informatics. The girls who do switch into CS quickly switch right out.. not because there's too few girls in their classes, or because they feel it isn't a cool subject.. but because it's such a difficult field.

I read an article the other day where the author mentioned all the programs that have been initiated to get college girls interested in CS. He basically shot down the argument, saying, "If you wait until you're 18 and in college to start programming, then you're probably not that interested in it." Although there's some exceptions (like really smart, motivated students), this is 98% accurate. A lot of people go to college just because they don't know what else to do, or because their parents force them to. Of course most of these people go for intro psychology, or poly sci, or jewish studies (my ex-roommate) courses & eventually majors. Mainly because these courses are interesting to everyone. And intro CS classes are pretty boring and hard compared to these courses that supposedly teach you "how the mind works." If you're bored and drained after your first CS class, what motivation do you have to take another? (Most people don't believe that the more you learn and practice, the more fun it gets.)

I didn't know how to program before college (and the other 2 girls in my intro CS course didn't either), so for me..it was really intimidating to meet people. 3/4 of the guys I met had been programming (or say they had!) since they were ~6. Who gets to college with that much experience in other fields? Most people in other majors seem to be on an even playing field..but definitely not in CS.

Another reason.. probably the most important.. is that guys have more fun than girls. Seriously. It's considered abnormal for a girl to play Xbox/computer games, but it's perfectly fine for a boy..teenager..or man. And that's how most guys get interested in programming or IT in the first place: by learning how to use & write hacks for their game characters. Girls usually don't have that amount of freedom during their childhood.

Anyways, these are just a few reasons why girls might not get & stay so interested in CS, despite all the money, jobs, scholarships, internships and the like that are practically being thrown at them. But imo, this will be a short lived problem. If even half of the current male programmers/ IT guys have daughters, there will be tons of little female hackers running wild all over the place.

Edit: I just realized I said CS is hard a bunch of times, which might imply that all other fields are easy.. but that's not true. CS is just very unique compared to other fields, especially if you are new to programming, logical concepts, data structures, recursion/loops, etc.

Edited by Michele Degges
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I certainly agree that it's not an easy field and your general observations are true. But that difficulty won't explain quite so much why there is such a large pool of males in tech fields in the first place. Reasons to leave a tech related major probably aren't all that unique or special compared to anyone else. Reasons for (not) even attempting the field is what interests me.

You're right, it is considered somewhat abnormal for girls to play video games (it's not all that unusual anymore, but it's still not *typical*). Video games are certainly a reason to become fascinated by technology and wondering about how things work. That's what playing games requires, anyway. There isn't a reason for that to be abnormal anyway. Because of how people are taught to act genderized as kids, which may include ideas like playing video games is a "male" thing to do, that only perpetuates more. The idea of manipulating "stuff" seems to be historically male oriented, so that's why females haven't been involved with technology very often in history.

I guess I'd say the best way to fix a disparity is by providing and teaching kids about technology, and more importantly, not treating girls and boys not as distinctly different in elementary school.

I'm not sure why you'd say this disparity problem would be short lived. If I only see 1 female in an IT class today, what would make that different 5 years from now? Or 15 years? There needs to be some kind of plan of action.

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Yeah. I think in general, kids are taught to admire doctors, nurses, firemen, and policemen. These fields are easy to visualize, as kids come into contact with these guys very often. But programmers are relatively unknown (at least in my childhood experiences). It's even more difficult to explain what programmers do to children; most people just show 'hello world' (which really doesn't show anything), or show some matrix-like code to impress an audience (which doesn't explain anything either). It's only recently that there's been some cool robotics platforms released, like lego mindstorms NX, which lets kids actually visualize the effects of a drag and drop program in a real, moving robot.

I'm not sure why you'd say this disparity problem would be short lived. If I only see 1 female in an IT class today, what would make that different 5 years from now? Or 15 years? There needs to be some kind of plan of action.

I believe this large gender imbalance will be short lived. As old as it seems to us (in our +/- 20's), people have only had in-home computers for the last 30 or so years.. so it's really a new, fresh field. As technology continues to boom, I can't see intelligent women growing more and more neutral to the field. In 2001, a little over 25% of women (who got bachelor's degrees) graduated with a CS major.. that's not too bad. [source] But I think you're right. Teaching kids about technology at a young age will definitely get more people interested in the field. Also, as the stereotypes die down (programming is a lonely, solo career - IT guys work in basements of office buildings - it's only for the socially awkward, etc.), more people will try it out. I'm under the impression that it will sort itself out over time: more people will become aware of the lucrative positions and challenging work.

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"I guess I'd say the best way to fix a disparity is by providing and teaching kids about technology, and more importantly, not treating girls and boys not as distinctly different in elementary school."

I think the problem lies precisely in assuming that males and females are essentially the same (except for genitalia). Despite decades of efforts to treat children (and adults) that way, males and females are, in fact, different, and no amount of social manipulation can quite suppress that. Different strengths, different weaknessess. I don't think females are as comfortable with the kind of skills necessary in some of the tech fields. This is not to say that females are inferior: they have their own areas of strength.

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Why are there so few females in tech fields?

Some of it is social norms.

There is a drastic difference in the kind of toys produced for boys and girls. In general, "boy" toys are a lot more mentally stimulating: puzzles, Lego, transformers, video games ect. Regardless of which category of toys he chooses chances are the activity will present him with a fair amount of mental challenge. Then, upon successfully solving that puzzle or transforming that level 5 transformer, after failing few times and trying again - a boy gets to experience that feeling of achievement, self satisfaction, competence. He likes the feeling (who doesn't?).. he wants to do more of those kind of often highly technical activities. With practice he gets better which builds his confidence and makes him reach for increasingly more challenging tasks. It is not difficult, later in life, for him to see himself doing something similar successfully for a living. He can imagine that the satisfaction will feel similar.

In the meantime, girls of the same age have the option of playing with dolls which consists of dressing them in outfits and role playing family/house. Other toy options for young girls are: jewellery making, creating flowers or baking goods out of playdough, or spa essentials for divas. Even video games for girls are mostly about going to the mall and matching outfits!!!

Yes, some of it is driven by what the market demands - they produce what sells for each gender due to different interests. At the same time I think that to some degree kids build interests from what they are exposed to. The bottom line is that there are very few options even if you are looking for them. It is hard to find "smart" girl friendly toys. For example, over the years, I managed to find few Lego sets for my niece but I have noticed that even those are not very challenging. Compared to the level of difficulty of Lego sets made for boys, they are significantly "dumbed" down.

The answer is probably more complex but I think this is how this starts.

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Its probably primarily an evolutionary explanation. The conditions for men and women to sucessfully reproduce are different, throughout history men have been conditioned to hunt and women to raise children. It would be silly not to think the brain is not influenced by evolution, and the only factors in play are how you choose to raise your child.

I remember seeing some documentary where they did a test on one day old babies, showing them pictures of different things and mesuring how long they focused on each picture - showing a significant difference where boys would focus more on mechanical things while girls would focus more on pictures of humans (or something like that, dont remember excactly).

Little girls are not just brought up to enjoy playing with dolls, they probably enjoy it more then boys relatively would if they where brought up that way (as they sometimes are).

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Little girls are not just brought up to enjoy playing with dolls, they probably enjoy it more then boys relatively would if they where brought up that way (as they sometimes are).

Girls do naturally have a strong nurturing side and they do enjoy playing with dolls more than boys would but that does imply that they don't or won't enjoy more mentally stimulating activities as well.

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"Some of it is social norms." I contend that the "social norms" reflect very real differences between males and females. Sure, boys' and girls' toys are different, but that is just as likely to reflect the actual preferences of children than any sexist manipulation. Any parent can tell you what will happen when young children are given, say, the same toys -- given dolls, for example, boys are more likely to play war with them, while girls will play house. Obviously there are exceptions, but the generalization is accurate. There was the celebrated case of two young twin boys born, one of whom had his penis so badly damaged as a baby that he was given additional surgery and "made" a girl (David Reimer was his name) and raised as a girl (given girl toys, dressed in dirl clothes, etc.). This was the idiocy of psychologists who contended that the differences between boys and girls were largely just "social norms". Well, it didn't work -- and that man really suffered because of the whole fashionable "gender differences are just the result of social norms" nonsense.

Edited by Avila
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This is not a real problem, and it is premised on egalitarianism. See Ayn Rand Lexicon: Egalitarianism

Also see the Lawrence Summers kerfuffle while he was president at Harvard: http://en.wikipedia....tween_the_sexes edit: The text of his remarks.

It is well known that for traits that can be measured on a range that males have a statistically wider distribution pattern. Intelligence is such a trait, and we see both more males retards and male geniuses than females of either category. The same is true for height and heritable aspects of athletic performance. Even if males and females were equally interested in tinkering with gadgets at an early age, eventually females that choose to stay with the field actually have to possess two traits: they must be smart enough to compete with the males at that level, and they must accept a career of competing with males in the first place. Nurturing an obsession with being right, or of being vindicated, or simply of beating the other guy is a masculine trait, not feminine.

Edited by Grames
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Well, firstly stats do not necceasirly prove anything. Actually, stats alone never prove anything. At best they can be used to support a valid inductive argument or to help one argue a certain point / to induce from stats to some valid argument.

Nurturing an obsession with being right, or of being vindicated, or simply of beating the other guy is a masculine trait, not feminine.

Are you trying to imply that one needs an obsession with being right / vindicated in order to succedd in engineering / tech fields? An *obession* ? I simply do not see how this is true if one takes this literally, maybe we are not meant to. I am not entirely sure what you *do* intend to imply. Sure one should be concerned with being right in any field, no matter what gender they are. This is clearly not really that gender dependent. Men might worry *more* about it (maybe), however I know plenty of women that are sufficently concerned about his to be motivated to do their job well.

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My particular comment brought up Larry Summers and his comments about why there are not more women at the top of those professions and therefore employed by Harvard as faculty (that "therefore" clause is Harvard logic, not mine). I will affirm that at the top it is extremely useful to be a competitive asshole as well as a genius. Just to pick the name of the hour: witness Steve Jobs. Although smart, Steve Jobs was not even a genius.

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My particular comment brought up Larry Summers and his comments about why there are not more women at the top of those professions and therefore employed by Harvard as faculty (that "therefore" clause is Harvard logic, not mine). I will affirm that at the top it is extremely useful to be a competitive asshole as well as a genius. Just to pick the name of the hour: witness Steve Jobs. Although smart, Steve Jobs was not even a genius.

Well, I suppose this has some degree of truth in the modern workplace ( the "asshole" bit). As far from ideal as this might be. *sigh*.

Edited by Prometheus98876
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Avila, your example of David Reimer helps nothing. Really, people screwed with his head in general. Being raised as a girl itself probably wasn't the issue and had little to do with his suicide later on. His life was pretty screwed up in the first place. What didn't work was trying to make him into a certain kind of person not of his own choosing, and all the psychological baggage that goes with it. I mean, his psychologist was practically a pedophile and abused his authority. I could go on about the sort of stuff that would have a strong impact on anyone, which he experienced.

In any case, even if there are inherent differences, is that really enough to explain why there even is such a disparity? I understand what Grames is saying, though is that really an explanation as to why there are so females in tech fields. I would think at best, you could only use that as some evidence as to why you see so few female tech geniuses, if it's true. Studying technology isn't really any easier than studying medicine, but there are plenty of females in the field of medicine in some capacity, whether or not they are doctors. Both fields requires at least an interest in systemic thinking. That's why I find it very odd to see a *notable* disparity, more so than in other somewhat-similar fields.

I only bring up social norms because that can explain the most. People as a whole make certain choices and develop certain preferences because of their own experiences and abilities, so trying to persuade kids to do use certain toys based on their gender would lead there to be a notable gender disparity in some fields eventually. I don't quite have a reason to say there is some biological factor. Evolutionary psychology won't help, as that still doesn't indicate what differences exist. How to distinguish between social causes and biological causes isn't easy, though.

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"Studying technology isn't really any easier than studying medicine, but there are plenty of females in the field of medicine in some capacity, whether or not they are doctors. Both fields requires at least an interest in systemic thinking." Medicine is a field in which nurturing -- taking care of others -- is the primary focus. It does not surprise me at all that there are many females in that field, precisely because of the nurturing aspect of the female nature. "Really, people screwed with his head in general. Being raised as a girl itself probably wasn't the issue and had little to do with his suicide later on." And how do you know that? I agree with you that people screwed with his head, and I can't imagine anything much screwier and destructive than to be raised as a female when one is male. I can't see anyone surviving that kind of treatment with sanity intact.

Edited by Avila
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"Studying technology isn't really any easier than studying medicine, but there are plenty of females in the field of medicine in some capacity, whether or not they are doctors. Both fields requires at least an interest in systemic thinking." Medicine is a field in which nurturing -- taking care of others -- is the primary focus. It does not surprise me at all that there are many females in that field, precisely because of the nurturing aspect of the female nature. "Really, people screwed with his head in general. Being raised as a girl itself probably wasn't the issue and had little to do with his suicide later on." And how do you know that? I agree with you that people screwed with his head, and I can't imagine anything much screwier and destructive than to be raised as a female when one is male. I can't see anyone surviving that kind of treatment with sanity intact.

It's easier to blame the most obviously different thing about a person. Why couldn't it simply be everything else that was the problem? Forcing a kid into certain behaviors is always bad anyway. Raising a male as male is stupid too, just give a kid the toys they'd like, the activities they like, etc. That's all that really matters. Although, if you think there is a non-physiological nature to being male or female, there's not much I can say. The disagreement is more about how to determine if certain behaviors are due to a biological nature, or due to social norms. The only way you can say that females are more nurturing is by pointing to statistics, which can't reliably tell us what the cause is. I'd be curious about what scientific studies you have that biological aspects would lead a female to be nurturing.

Also, how would you explain why there was an increase in females being granted CS degrees, as shown in the link Michele gave?

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"It's easier to blame the most obviously different thing about a person."

I don't think "blame" is the correct word to use. Males and females are different, and have different strengths and weaknesses. I'st not so much a case of ascribing blame as it is simply providing an explanation for the discrepancy you see.

"Why couldn't it simply be everything else that was the problem?"

I wouldn't call that "simple" at all. It would be far simpler to accept the obvious: males and females are different.

"Forcing a kid into certain behaviors is always bad anyway."

"Always"? Really? Are you a parent? If so, then you know that kids don't automatically know what is good for them. Yes, they do have to be "forced" (taught, if you prefer a softer word) that eating dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner is not a good idea; that they have to go to bed if they are to be able to function at school the next day; that they have to wear seatbelt restraints whether they like it or not (most of them don't); that they can't defecate whenever or wherever they want to; ---- you get the point.

"Raising a male as male is stupid too, just give a kid the toys they'd like, the activities they like, etc."

As for the first part of your sentence, I don't know how, then, you can teach young boys what it means to be a man instead of merely an overgrown man-child. As for the second part -- I agree, and if you do that you will find certain patterns of behavior that are typically male and typically female. As I mentioned above, give boys a set of dolls and they will set to battle with them; give the same dolls to girls and they will play house or have a tea party.

"The only way you can say that females are more nurturing is by pointing to statistics, which can't reliably tell us what the cause is."

I'd say the evidence of plain observation and some common sense is sufficient.

"Also, how would you explain why there was an increase in females being granted CS degrees, as shown in the link Michele gave?"

Women now lead men in attaining college degrees (62% of all associate degrees, 57% of all bachelor's degrees in 2007), so that doesn't surprise me at all.

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I have a 2 yr old daughter, and her mother nor I have encouraged her toward any particular toys. She has, on her own, chosen a toy baby, among many other descriptively named toys, as her favorite. She gets very upset when her "Baby" loses her hat, and if you put it on over the toy's eyes she makes you fix it, because "she can't see, fix her hat." She does like puzzles, but I think I'll get her a hot wheel car or something like it just to see what she does.

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"She does like puzzles, but I think I'll get her a hot wheel car or something like it just to see what she does."

She'll probably like them, but she might play with them differently than a boy might.

I taught grades 4 through 12 -- and there were differences between the girls and boys in all grades. This was despite the kids coming from some pretty diverse backgrounds, the school being in a "first ring" area outside a major metropolitan city (Minneapolis).

Friends of ours visited us this past summer -- they have five boys and a new baby girl. The father told me how very different she was from the boys, even as an infant. This is typical of what I have observed on my own and heard from other parents.

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Sure, there's tons of differences between boys and girls.. but I don't know if there's evidence to support the sayings that "girls tend to go for more nurturing positions than tech-fields," or "girls are more interested in X toys, which explains why they choose Y careers." It's most likely a combination of a bunch of things: environmental factors (social pressure, norms), parental guidance (do they approve of their daughters playing video games? if not, do they voice their disapproval? if so, girls will associate "bad" or "unhealthy" with playing on the computer), role models (how many amazing CS women are there? how many are widely known? -- approximately 0), math & science skills, social interactions with other girls/boys, previous experiences with people in certain fields (do kids/teens know what CS is? do they know anyone who's in the field?), reasons for entering college (to please parents, find passion, or just get [any] degree?), etc..

**I found the article I referred to earlier which basically knocks down all of Rebecca George's (chair of the WIT forum) arguments about the causes for the lack of women in IT.. which include sexism, lack of role models, and the fact that IT's unfashionable.

Although it's an interesting thing to think about, there's way too much hype about it.. just as there is about the lack of male nurses. If a person is really interested in something, they will at least try to pursue it.. maybe by taking an intro CS class (if they're in college), or by joining a CS club. It's been rumored around my school's CS dept. that the administration wants to make the intro to CS class here (which currently teaches scheme) part of the GE requirements for everyone. I'm kind of happy about that idea: if I have to take intro psychology when psych isn't my major, then it only seems fair to make everyone take at least one CS class. Also, I think that would get more people interested in the field (if they made the class a little funner). Now that I think about it, I wonder if there's a higher number of people in certain majors because they took the first intro class during their freshmen year. That might explain the huge number of people with English degrees. :smartass:

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role models (how many amazing CS women are there? how many are widely known? -- approximately 0)

Ada Lovelace! The first programmer, ever! But... you said widely known... =[

Although it's an interesting thing to think about, there's way too much hype about it.. just as there is about the lack of male nurses.

I wouldn't say there's too much hype, but there's too much focus on the wrong aspects and wrong methods in general. I'm not really making this thread to talk about gender differences, (although suggesting that gender differences are an *important* cause is to suggest there is something "wrong" with a female who doesn't act according to stereotype). I only really want to get at what some provable causes are. Any mention about how kids behave has been anecdotal. While useful, it doesn't really lead anywhere. Everyone should as a kid be raised with some education on science and technology, and I think that would 'normalize' any existing disparity. And the same for stuff that are viewed as traditionally female-oriented.

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It's been rumored around my school's CS dept. that the administration wants to make the intro to CS class here (which currently teaches scheme) part of the GE requirements for everyone. I'm kind of happy about that idea: if I have to take intro psychology when psych isn't my major, then it only seems fair to make everyone take at least one CS class. Also, I think that would get more people interested in the field (if they made the class a little funner).

I am a CS major who was completely uninterested in the field until I took a programming class in high school, and I can't help but agree with this. However, I will say that if I had to learn Scheme as my first programming language, rather than something like Python or Java, I would have been much less likely to pursue CS any further.

Back to the broader subject of this thread: does it really matter if there is a lack of a certain gender in any given field? I can understand how being the only female in a class could be uncomfortable, but if you enjoy the subject matter then it shouldn't be such a big deal. And from my observations, at least, there is hardly a chauvinistic bias in CS -- things like coursework grading, idea and work attribution, and inclusion in discussions and collaboration is pretty much even across sexes. If anything, female CS majors are given a bit more attention and respect, because they're such a rarity. It may be different in other "male-dominated" fields, but CS and IT (at least in my experience) are about as sexism-free as they come.

Edited by Rudmer
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Back to the broader subject of this thread: does it really matter if there is a lack of a certain gender in any given field?

I'm only saying it matters to the extent that there must be some reason females don't attempt to get into the field in the first place. If the reason is primarily a social cause of norms as I think it is, then it does matter. As I already said, I don't really care *that* there is a disparity, I care about *why*.

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I am a CS major who was completely uninterested in the field until I took a programming class in high school, and I can't help but agree with this. However, I will say that if I had to learn Scheme as my first programming language, rather than something like Python or Java, I would have been much less likely to pursue CS any further.

An even sneakier way to get more people interested in the field is to make Intro to CS mandatory in high school.. or middle school.. or elementary! (w00t)

Edited by Michele Degges
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