Sunday, August 1, 2010

Women in CS: It's not nature, it's culture

Here's my goal for the year:

To convince people to stop throwing up their hands and saying women are just not interested in Computer Science, and instead do something about it

Whenever someone says this, the implication is, "It's not our fault. We're not doing anything wrong." Instead of saying, "How can we retain/attract women?" they simply assume that we are:
  • Not interested
  • Biologically deficient at math/logical thinking
  • Don't have what it takes to be a "code cowboy"1
These assumptions are not correct. In some parts of the world we see equal numbers of women and men studying computer science and engineering and being employed in the tech sector. For example, in Malaysia women comprise 50-60% of jobs in the tech sector. This is entirely due to culture - turns out, men who work indoors are seen as less masculine than those that work outdoors, and women who work outdoors are seen as lower class [1]. It's funny, we actually have sexism working in reverse - leading to an increase in women working in technology. 

The data ain't pretty, though 1982 sure looked nice.
Source: NYTimes
We see similar trends in other parts of Asia. I don't have recent data, but around 2003 women were earning 59% of science and engineering degrees in China, 46% in South Korea, and 66% in Japan. (Compared with 33% in the US). [2]

As for the biology argument, if you're still not convinced, read Terri Oda's excellent piece, "How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn't."

So for the non-Asian world that is still struggling with underrepresentation [2], I think we need to change our culture. We need to eliminate the geek mythology (that to be successful you must eat/sleep/breathe code and nothing else) [3], we need to ensure we illustrate the purpose and value of computing [4], we need to be proactive in recruiting women [5], we need to provide plenty of other women as peers and role models [6], and we probably should de-masculinize the workplace [7]. These approaches are all shown to make a big difference in attracting and retaining women in CS.

If you do these things at your institution, I guarantee you that in addition to helping attract women, you will also attract men. And probably also people of different races, cultures, ethnicities, and socio-economic statuses. Which given the recent yo-yo enrollment trends over the last decade is not a bad thing at all. We really don't want computer science departments going the way of the way of the dinosaur2.

So, please - stop mansplaining and start doing.

It's worth mentioning since it's a common misunderstanding: coding != computer science, coding ∈ computer science. It's like how doing an assay is not molecular biology research. Assays are an aspect of the field of molecular biology, coding is an aspect of the field of computer science.
2 No disrespect to anyone who works in Paleontology (I am truly saddened to hear of your suffering), but I just couldn't resist the pun.

[1] Mellstrom, U. Masculinity, Power and Technology: A Malaysian Ethnography. Ashgate, 2003.
[2] Simard, C. "The State of Women and Technology Fields Around The World". Anita Borg Institute. 2007.
[3] Margolis, J. and Fisher, A. "Geek Mythology and Attracting Undergraduate Women to Computer Science" Impacting Change Through Collaboration, proceedings of the Joint National Conference of the Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network and the National Association of Minority Engineering Program Administrators, March, 1997.
[4] Margolis, J., Fisher, A., and Miller, F. "Caring About Connections: Gender and Computing". IEEE Technology and Society, December, 1999.
[5] Cohoon, J. M. 2002. Recruiting and retaining women in undergraduate computing majors. SIGCSE Bull. 34, 2 (Jun. 2002), 48-52.
[6] Lagesen, V. The Strength of Numbers: Strategies to Include Women into Computer Science. Social Studies of Science February 2007 vol. 37 no. 1 67-92.
[7] Cheryan, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P.G., Steele, C.M. "Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 97, No. 6. (December 2009), pp. 1045-1060.


  1. Not much to add, just wanted to say nice post!

  2. Great goal! May we join you?

    Over in Germany we are doing something about this - last fall we introduced a women-only program in business and computing at our university. Over all the jokes we managed to fill the 40 positions with a great bunch of women ages 19-44 (!). Many have noted that they were interested in computing, but didn't know how to program already, so they thought they would be lost in a CS program. They believed us that we would start at the beginning!

    We've lost some over the first year, but we have transfers applying and a new crop of applicants coming in this fall. Our web site has a brochure in English (and Arabic, Russian, and Turkish so that parents can read what we are up to).

    Girls can do IT - and CS too!

  3. Great post. Yeah I really hate the "but we don't get a whole lot of women in this field" excuse. And definitely the masculinization(sp?) of the workplace. That hurts a lot of guys as much as it does the women as it reduces what's left of the meritocracy.

  4. my girlfriend is very interested in computer science and even mathematics. she will start studying mathematics and computer science soon.

  5. Debora: Your university's program sounds great. I wish you lots of luck with it. Also, nice blog on plagiarism! I think that's such an important area to be working on in general, and a fine example of how useful computer science can be to solving real problems that all disciplines face.

    FrauTech: Thanks, and absolutely agree.

    ands: Fantastic. I think everyone should study Math and Computer Science. :-)

  6. That was fabulous. I can't remember where I saw a link to this post, but I enjoyed it so much I had to throw in my two cents over at my blog.

  7. Thanks for the shout out, Radical! And neat blog, I love the title (even though I'm personally not very fond of non-musical Beatles)

  8. Hi Female Computer Scientist! I found your blog via the latest Scientiae. I love your writing style and subscribed to your blog. See you around the blogosphere! My name is Stephanie and I am also in CS.


  9. Thanks, Steph! Nice blog, and welcome to the party. :)

  10. Female Computer Scientist... this article was published today:
    and one response (from a male, if that matters) was, get rid of the Women In CS/Engineering/Math/Science initiatives as well as quotas for businesses/organisations/etc. as to how many women they have to include. While I (a FCS also!) sort of see the argument behind this, I have to disagree. I wondered what you thought...

  11. Thanks for the link, hackerfairy. I have deep respect for Lise Eliot - she's one of the best developmental neuroscientists on the block.

    I'm strapped for time at the moment, but good topic - I'll try to pen a post on this soon.