Sometimes I wonder why there are so disproportionately few women in my field. What is it about Computer Science that sends most women running for the hills. I think this is a question that should be directed at sociologists more than at CS people, as it seems to be more of a social issue more than anything else.
I can imagine what scares people away from this field in general. There are 3 factors I can think off which make most people think long and hard about deciding on a career in CS. First one is of course the computer geek image which seems to be deeply socialized into every single individual at a very early age. Every cartoon, movie or video game always portrays the computer specialist as a pimpled geek with thick glasses and the canonical pocket protector. Every once in a while you will see a “hacker” in there who is hip, cool and awesome. But Hollywood hackers are always self taught whiz kids who hate the man and do not need some stinking degree from a university.
We always had this image problem – only exception was the brief period of the .com suck when creating static HTML pages was more profitable than selling crack, and having CS degree meant you were supposed to be disgustingly, filthy rich by the age of 25. So while the nerd image was still prevalent, it was sort of upgraded to “rich nerd” which, if you think about it was not that bad.
Right now we are in almost an opposite situation due to outsourcing. Popular opinion is that US based CS graduates cannot compete with their Indian counterparts who allegedly work for shiny baubles. So the new image of a CS graduate is a computer nerd with a pocket protector, flipping burgers at Mickey D’s because his job was shipped overseas.
The third and final strike against CS is the emergence of some sort of faux neo-ludism in the recent years. These days it seems to be fashionable, and in good taste to loudly declare your disdain for these damned computers. I’m always amazed at how many people are literally beaming with pride when they tell me they are computer illiterate. As if it was some sort of badge of honor. They almost want to be praised for their ineptitude and be reassured that their almost criminal ignorance of technology doesn’t really matter because “that’s why we IT guys are here”.
People also often brag about how bad at math and/or spelling they are, but if they produce a report full of typos or mess up the numbers for the last quarter no one will give them a break. This is why people use spellcheckers, calculators and proofread their work. But if someone is “bad with computers” they can royally fuck something up and no one will blame them because everyone knows “Bob is bad with computers”. Young people pick up on this message and see that if you never bother to learn technology no one will ever expect you to do certain things on your own, and will give you special treatment. In fact managers and high ranked official tend to be the most clueless and the most vocal about their lack of skill. So wherever they go they take a throng of IT people who make stuff work for them. This image is also very prevalent in the media and functions almost as the polar opposite of the typical geek image. So while CS people are nerds with no carrier prospects, the truly successful, beautiful and admired individuals tend to be computer clueless.
Put all of these things together, and you can probably see why CS admissions are so low, and are falling each year. Our field just has a really bad rep. We have no street cred so to speak.
What I find interesting is that men are able to shrug off these stigmatic stereotypes much more easily than women. Why is that? All the 3 factors seem to be equally discouraging for both sexes. Maybe some of the female readers could shed some light on this for us. I know there is at least one or two of you out there. ;)
After contemplating this for a little while, I think I have 2 potential answers. For one, CS has been historically a male dominated field. Most of the the big names out there, the most elitist, accomplished and widely renowned researchers of the past were mostly dudes. Therefore talented women are often up against tough and sometimes prejudiced competition in the academia. It is tough to get stuff published in more exclusive and prominent peer reviewed journals, if the reviewers often have preconceived notions about your abilities based on your sex. And let’s face it, old dudes may often have “conservative” world view and “old fashioned” beliefs about women, and the role of kitchen in their daily lives. Some ladies may consider this as a challenge and are invigorated by this potential opposition, while others shy away from this sort of unfair competition. So this is an important factor, but I don’t think it is the only one.
For example, I find it hard to believe that high school would girls decide not to take a computer science course because of the glass ceiling issue in the academic world. After all, male students tend to outnumber females in CS courses even at the earliest levels. So somehow we must be socializing girls to shun computer science at a very early age – perhaps even before they hear about it for the first time in school.
I think part of the issue is the strange double standards we have for little boys and girls. They are encouraged to take part in different activities, to take up different hobbies and play different games. This is why we have a whole bustling industry producing video games targeted mostly at young boys and adolescents. This has started changing in the recent years, especially in the console market. Still, boys are more likely to be more familiar with technology having played, installed and downloaded or even tweaked and modified many games before they ever get a chance to take a technology course in school.
But video games and their target market are only a symptom of this double standard. They only show that these traditional roles and behaviors for boys and girls are deeply ingrained in our psyche. Boys are almost nudged towards technology, and encouraged to tinker, play and explore, while girls are taught restraint and almost nudged away from it.
But this is just a speculation, not based on personal observation and not supported by any concrete data. I’m talking about this, because the real question we have all been asking for years now is: how to get more women interested in Computer Science. What do we have to do? How do we advertise to them? How to we draw them in?
Everyone seems to be talking about modifying the curriculum, or shifting focus away from this or that. But if girls are getting shunted away from technology right from the get go there is not much do. By the time they reach school age, where they can be exposed to computer science many of them can already be pre-programmed to dislike it. Perhaps we should be targeting parents and early childhood education programs instead.
It’s just a thought. What do you think? What is your take on this issue? I’d love to hear what the female readers have to say about this. Feel free to tell me I’m totally wrong ladies!