Women in CS

Update: August 19 2013

Please note that this post is not representative of my current opinions on the subject. I have learned a lot about privilege and social issues surrounding gender dynamics. Looking back at this post I can’t help but be embarrassed by my past ignorance. I would have deleted this post long time ago if it wasn’t for some of the more insightful comments below it.

Please treat this as cautionary an example of “privileged white dudebro tries to logic out gender issues and completely misses the point” type scenario. Sorry for being an ignorant ass back then. I got better.

Update 04/16/2008 09:47:17 AM

After listening to several opinions on this I must conclude that we (and by we I mean men of CS) should stop trying to figure out how to attract ladies to this field, and just ask them. There are organizations for women in cs that among other things are working on this very cause on a daily basis. So what we ought to do is to ask them how we as representatives of the “majority” can help them in their efforts. If we just guess, and do things without consulting women themselves we might actually be counter productive and do more damage than good.

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!

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11 Responses to Women in CS

  1. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Man, you are right to the point. I believe I am the living exception, though: I am a bloke, a gadget freak and I still don’t really know computer science at all (though I do have a fair varnish of things, I don’t really understand them). At the same time, my ex-wife is a computer scientist (and a pretty good one, I heard) and she is definitely a very nice lady, educated and socialized. And anyone who says otherwise will be able to test if I am or not also a good martial artist…. :-D

    But to come back to your point, she was pretty much the only girl in first year CS at Uni and definitely the only one in the last one. We discussed that sometimes and she agreed it is more social pressure and image than anything else. Women are actually better at Maths and Physics than guys, statistically, so there is no reason they couldn’t be better at CS too. It is just social pressure which makes CS jobs unattractive to them.

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  2. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    I wonder how much our toys play into this. Everyone seems to enjoy taking things apart and putting them together, but the things we do that with are different right from the start, based on our sex. Girls are typically given dolls that they can dress and undress, whereas boys are given GI Joes so they can take apart the mega-tank and add fifty more missiles. Is that really a factor? I have no idea, but I suspect it’s a piece of the puzzle.

    Image, as you mentioned, is definitely a big one. The stereotypical images are very strong. Consider the similar situation with mechanics: The stereotype is a greasy male who is big and strong (or a drunkard with a beer belly, depending on where you live), yet those qualities aren’t necessary for the job (and, in many cases, being more slender means you can have an easier time reaching all the PITA bolts). The greasiness only compounds the problem. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture that has a greater impact, but females typically care much more about their appearances.

    Another factor is the perceived social atmosphere of the job. “Computer people” work with computers all day long and never talk to anyone, and females are typically more social. That may be one of the reasons you see higher enrollment of females in fields like sociology, communications, and humanities.

    How do you attract more females to computer fields? Maybe making Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom teach the courses would be a start ;) The issue may be one of confidence. The stereotypes drive females away from technology at an early age, so maybe they feel uncomfortable trying to dive in later? A good tutor at any age could help with that, but that solution isn’t very realistic for a college campus. What would you put on posters about CS degrees? Perhaps more people, fewer computers, and no acronyms. Maybe a few people around a whiteboard discussing a fairly simple chart (one that is people-focused, e.g., a simple view of how a company meets the needs of its customers via technology)?

    Really, I have no idea. Maybe you should just ask random females on campus ;)

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  3. Jenn UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    As a woman who has been to a few women-in-computing-centric events, I’m very passionate about this topic, and have learned a lot about other females in the field and their feelings.

    One of the main issues is how girls are raised. You need a thick skin to survive in CS, even before graduating college. It’s a boy’s club, and it takes a different kind of “girl” to roll with the guys.

    Beyond studies, women usually want to start a family – and CS is not very supportive of that. I have a friend at Northwestern whose advisor uses the term “mommy track” for one of his former students who got pregnant. You’re not considered a “real scientist” if you do natural human things like start a family.

    Johnny Depp teaching a CS course may attract girls at first, but I think it would create a very false image of the men in CS ;) Just playin’.

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  4. astine UNITED STATES Konqueror Linux says:

    I suspect that a lot of it might be attributed to the general differences between the sexes. I strongly doubt that these differences are due entirely to nurture as apposed to nature. It probably is due to a little of both, though I have no authority on the issue.

    As Ian said, Women tend to be more socially oriented than men, so all those issues you mentioned at first might have a greater influence on women than on men. If there is a social stigma in CS, and women are socially aware than men, then women would be more adverse to CS than women.

    The other half of it might be this: part of the stigma against CS is that of the pimply geek with glasses. Dating is usually structured so that men hit on the women rather than the other way around. So, in order to get attractive dates, men all have to do is go to where the attractive women are and ask them. Women however, have to strategically place themselves so that they will be noticed by attractive men and asked. A CS class, filled with pimply geeks with glasses, (as opposed to the art facility where all the apparently attractive, ‘sensative,’ men hang out,) is simply not the place to do this. Considering that a lot of choices made in college have more to do with sex than smarts, this might make sense.

    (BTW, I am that self tought whiz kid. Down with the man! :D)

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  5. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I think part of the process is that boys are a lot more stats/numbers-oriented than girls growing up (for whatever reason). It’s almost a stereotype that boys will go through a dinosaur stage where they can quote the height, length, and weight of a score of different dinosaurs and a multitude of different factoids. Likewise the stats-mad sports fans are almost always male. I think that plays into the techy side of the computer industry in that it’s often about knowing tons of obscure little factoids that other people don’t care about.

    In my admittedly limited computer industry experience, the women I’ve seen come in the same varieties of competence as the men, but the roles they have all taken (repeat: in my personal experience) are ‘single-task’ roles – they are coders in a specific language, or they run the email server. I’ve not personally seen any women in the role of the sysadmin-who-has-to-know-lots-of-little-shit. The ‘glue’ sysadmin who doesn’t necessarily have deep knowledge, but has broad knowledge. Or even in the role of the “friend who everyone goes to to get their computer fixed/spec’d”. I’d be interested to see a comparison of women in IT vs women in System Administration to see if what I see is representative.

    I’ve also not personally heard women talk about tinkering with IT stuff at home on a regular basis, but I know a few men that talk about getting lost coding until 4am on a work night, or playing with greenboards or whatnot, but again that might be an artifact of a small sample size.

    I fully agree with Jenn about the boys club thing. There is usually a tangible air that things are a bit weird (emitted from the males) when a techy female enters the room. In time it dulls down, but it’s almost always there at the start.

    I remember going to a session at linux.conf.au about IT forensics given by three freshly graduated women. They were a bit giggly (fresh graduates sometimes do that) and the talk was okay, but at the end the MC (who was a past lecturer of theirs, I think) said “give them a hand for their talk… and I bet they surprise people who think they’re just dumb blondes”. I almost got up and decked him – the talk had nothing to do with gender, but was about post-hoc intrusion detection and analysis. Where’s the need to bring gender into it? Instead of ‘striking one for equality’ as he probably thought, he actually pointed them out as ‘unusual’. Sore point.

    It’s odd that the bulk stuff of the IT industry is incredibly gender-independent, yet the staff aren’t.

    On a grammar nazi note – please use literally when you actually mean literally, not as an intensifier. If someone was literally beaming with pride, that means that in actual fact the person was throwing off beams of something (possibly pride itself) due to pride. It’s just that if we lose ‘literally’ we have no other single word that means the same thing: “the following may sound ludicrous, but I mean it exactly word for word and it is not a metaphor”. The other weird use of literally is when it is used for mundane things – witness Jamie Oliver saying “Now we literally just put a pinch of salt into the pot”… as opposed to metaphorically doing so, I guess…

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2391″]Maybe making Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom teach the courses would be a start[/quote]

    But that wouldn’t make women more interested in the subject itself – just the teacher. Also, the question is whether or not someone like that be a good instructor. In fact a lot of influential professors I had in the past were not very handsome or attractive, but their lectures were always interesting thanks to their personality and teaching method.

    What I would rater see is teachers who are drawing crowds into their classrooms not because of how they look, but because of how they teach. Besides, back in college I wouldn’t take say a business management or an accounting class even if the instructor looked like Jessica Alba or Angelina Jolie because I simply had no interest int these subjects. In fact such classes would probably draw exactly the wrong crowd. :P

    [quote post=”2391″]Beyond studies, women usually want to start a family – and CS is not very supportive of that. I have a friend at Northwestern whose advisor uses the term “mommy track” for one of his former students who got pregnant. You’re not considered a “real scientist” if you do natural human things like start a family.[/quote]

    To tell you the truth, I didn’t even consider this, until you brought it up. This just shows that I being a guy, don’t really have a clue how it is to be a woman in this field. It never actually crossed my mind. Then again maybe it’s because MSU seems to be pretty good about this stuff. I remember having a pregnant lady in some of my graduate classes and all the professors seemed to be really supportive.

    Anyway, it’s great to see a female input here. Otherwise it would be just bunch of us guys talking about stuff we don’t really understand that well. :)

    [quote post=”2391″]Women however, have to strategically place themselves so that they will be noticed by attractive men and asked. A CS class, filled with pimply geeks with glasses, (as opposed to the art facility where all the apparently attractive, ’sensative,’ men hang out,) is simply not the place to do this.[/quote]

    But that’s why we have parties, mixers and various other social events, clubs and organizations. So that both sexes can strategically place themselves where they are likely to meet ready and willing members of opposite sex. On average, classroom environment is not that great for socializing. So I’d hope most of students pick their major based on what interests them rather on the potential to meet interesting people.

    [quote post=”2391″]I’ve also not personally heard women talk about tinkering with IT stuff at home on a regular basis, but I know a few men that talk about getting lost coding until 4am on a work night, or playing with greenboards or whatnot, but again that might be an artifact of a small sample size.[/quote]

    I think it’s small sample size. I actually did meet women who do like to code and tinker on their spare time.

    And I promise I will literally try not to abuse the literally thing. :twisted:

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  7. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    [quote comment=”8783″]What I would rater see is teachers who are drawing crowds into their classrooms not because of how they look, but because of how they teach. Besides, back in college I wouldn’t take say a business management or an accounting class even if the instructor looked like Jessica Alba or Angelina Jolie because I simply had no interest int these subjects.[/quote]

    Oh, sure, fine, I don’t really like Depp anyway. He’s overrated ;) Notice though that you wouldn’t take a business class because you have no interest in the subject, so I suspect a great professor wouldn’t really make much difference there. The problem is getting females into the classes and keeping their interest. The “trick” may be to combine a technology-focused course with something that is traditionally more interesting to females and then convince the university to make it a requirement ;)

    Maybe there should be a “free software” class that is all about how to obtain, use, and judge free software (a hidden agenda could sneak in too…). That would be a good way to snag a variety of people and potentially lead them toward more tech classes.

    Do you think female-dominated majors have professors contemplating how to get more males into their programs? What would a professor/department have to do to get guys interested in Early Childhood Education, for instance?

    BTW, the ad at the bottom of your page is to “Meet Geek Women,” haha. Maybe I should click it and find out why they became geeks ;)

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2391″]The “trick” may be to combine a technology-focused course with something that is traditionally more interesting to females and then convince the university to make it a requirement.[/quote]

    We already have that. At my university it’s called Fluency in Technology and is billed as CMPT 109. Gives you practical lessons in using MS Office tools as well as overview of technology in general. So we do go over hardware, teach them about software, operating systems, databases, programming, we show them how the internet works, talk about networking, tcp/ip and etc.

    It is a gen-ed and lion share of the students who take it are usually from the “colorful” majors such as dance, music, phys-ed, theater and etc.. None of them has any interest in the field or in fact with anything that has the word “science” in the name. :P

    Math majors are required to take CMPT 183 which is Intro to Programming with Java. They also can’t wait to get out of this class and consider programming to be the most boring and painful chore in the universe.

    I really don’t think changing the curriculum or focus to what we thing will interest women is the ticket. In fact it could seem unintentionally patronizing to some.

    I think what we really need to do is to go to the successful women in CS who are actually actively working on resolving this issue, and say “We’re on board – what do you think should we do? How can we help.”

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  9. Anetta UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    So I’m Luke’s cousin Anetta and I was a computer science major in college. How did I get into it? Why did I go through w/ it? Did I survive? Well here’s my story. I had a really tough computer teacher in grade school. He favored the “boys.” Even though I tried and even though I felt I did well in my homeworks and programs, he always gave me C’s nothing higher. His explanation was that I didn’t try hard enough. (Back in grade school the programming involved getting the green turtle to move on the screen.) Anyways, I was frustrated because of him and couldn’t understand why he treated me like this while the guys who never tried in class nor did their homeworks got B’s or A’s. The other girls in the class didn’t care so they dealt with it. I tried harder and harder and got better and better at it. He did finally give me a B in 8th grade. When graduating 8th grade I actually asked him why he treated me so badly and he told me that he knew I had potential but wanted to show me that the field was difficult and I’d have to fight to show everyone how good I was. (I still thought he was an asshole.)

    So that brought me to high school. In high school, I decided to go on w/ computer science because I actually enjoyed it. At first I was a bit intimidated. Imagine this scenario: You just moved into town and you don’t know anyone. It’s your first day of freshman year and you have computer science as your second period class. You walk into class and sit down. As you sit there one by one a guy comes in and sits down. Another guy comes in and sits down. The bell rings and the class is you, the male professor and all guys. (Mind you most of the males are sophmores, juniors, and seniors and many of them are actually good looking). At first I was really intimidated. The teacher actually cracked some jokes about it so I’d feel more comfortable. After that it was smooth sailing. I knew what I was doing and eventually most of the guys in the class realized it too so they actually came to me for help and advice. Loved the computer science teacher and he really inspired me to go on to program in college.

    College was a bit different. There were more girls in the computer science classes, but not as many either. I had friends from other majors so it didn’t make a difference to me who was in my classes as long as I liked what I was doing. I ended up finishing college w/ a double major in computer science and math. After college I was offered a consulting/programming job but unfortunately due to 911 that was retracted. I ended up going back to school and getting my MBA. Decided I needed more of the business savy as well (plus it’s true girls are social and I love management.) Currently I am a Manager at a Medical Center and I supervise and pretty much am their IT department. So some of us do survive. Am I as good as the guys? I’m ok, definitely will never measure up to my cousin Luke :) Props to him for being such a genius. He and I will end up opening up a business one day – mark my words people. ;) He will be the programmer and developer and I will do all the negotiating and sales (and maybe help a bit w/ the programming).

    Hope that was insightful. Although I feel I rambled a bit.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2391″](Back in grade school the programming involved getting the green turtle to move on the screen.)[/quote]

    Ah, good old LOGO – the retarded younger brother of Lisp! I was actually planning to give my 109 students a LOGO lab exercise this semester but we ran out of time. Besides, teaching them Access was painful enough I presume. :P

    [quote post=”2391″]He and I will end up opening up a business one day – mark my words people.[/quote]

    Yeah, we just need to come up with some idea for a product/service that will make us rich and famous. :mrgreen: Any suggestions?

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  11. e UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    Hey, I’m late with this comment, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Came across this yesterday and thought I’d share it. Personally, I didn’t have the mentoring or support as a university student, then when I discovered IT, I had already started walking down another path.
    Hope you and your readers find this article from the Financial Times of interest: What is it about girls and IT?

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