Diversity Technology

Women in computing

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

In the comments attached to the Girlism post, an Assistant Professor of Computer Technology, Dr. Elizabeth Lane Lawley mentioned effort at Carnegie-Mellon to understand why there is such a large discrepancy based on gender in the computer sciences. I found a web site devote to this project and have been spending some time reading publications associated with the work.

The publications have been a revelation, not because I don’t know first hand what they’re discussing, but because I’m reading someone articulating my experiences. For the first time, I don’t feel alone in many of my own observations about the field, and my own position within it.

For instance, one publication, Undergraduate Women in Computer Science: Experience, Motivation, and Culture mentioned that women had significantly less experience with computers prior to attending college then men. However, what was surprising was that this lack of prior experience didn’t impact on their ability to do the work in the classes:

“Despite this difference in how students evaluate themselves, there is a gap between women’s perceived ability and their actual performance. Despite their modest estimates of their own standing in the class, three out of the seven first-year students made the Dean’s List (which turned out to be about the top third of the class) in the first semester, and six of the seven women made a B or A average for the first year.”

I was a law student when I started college. The philosophy teacher that taught my logic class strongly recommended I try a computing class so, for grins and giggles, I signed up for a VMS Basic programming class. My only experience with computers prior was through issues of Popular Science (borrowed from a neighbor), filling in the computer worksheets for an insurance company when I was an underwriter, and handling the strange data entry machine at the real estate company I worked at as a secretary.

However, after the first week in the class, I switched over to computer science and never looked back. Matching the results of the women in the study, I ended up a Dean’s Scholar, ranking 3rd in a graduating class of 27 students. And this was with me being a double major, studying Psychology at the same time.

According to the paper, female students were made aware of their experiential differences from the male students, and this undermined their confidence, generating feelings of self-doubt, isolation, and inadequacy. This, in spite of women performing as well or better than the men.

Now there are some major differences between when I went to college and the experiences of the women in the reports. Perhaps because the field of computer science (as separate from engineering) was relatively new, and personal computers were quite rare, many of the men in the class had as little prior experience as the women. In addition, the professors came from a diverse background: math, philosopy, and english literature in addition to engineering. This mix helped diffuse the typical arrogance associated with engineering, which I think made the environment much less competitive than current computer science environments.

Whatever the reason, I know the environment at my school was supportive and free of gender bias or differentiation. I only know now how lucky I was then. Still, my luck was to run out once I hit the ‘real world’.

Women students were faced with male students saying, “you’re a computer science student, you should know this” quite frequently, enhancing feelings of inadequacy and isolation. The reports mention how women’s isolation in the field continues into the workplace, it not being uncommon to have a man say something along the lines of “You have a degree in computer science. You should know this.”

I have had this happen to me not once, but several times, and each time my own self confidence erodes, and I become increasingly defensive. Yet, I’ve never once not been able to keep up with, or exceed, the production of the men I work with.

This does beg the question: why do men say something such as “you should know this”? This is really nothing more than a non-productive putdown. Perhaps women should be taught to say in response, “Because I learned other things you don’t know, dickhead.”

The report and others also highlighted a significant difference between women and men in how each views computing in their lives. To sum it up: Women program for purpose, men program just to program. There is a great deal of conjecture that believes this goes all the way back to our earliest years and our use of tools, or not.

For myself, when I was a girl scout years ago, we were taught how to cook and how to sew; boys were taught wood working and mechanics. This continued into school, with girls getting Home Ec and boys getting Woodshop. Girls worked with pots and pans to make a meal, or a sewing machine to make a dress. Boys worked with a variety of tools and gadgets, making a variety of different things, some practical, some not.

Now, I am assuming that times they have changed. Still, according to the reports at the C-M site, boys are more likely to spend time tweaking around on the computer then girls, while girls are more likely to spend time making something on the computer. Boys want to figure out why something works as it does, girls just want to make it work.

Is this difference a product of our genes? Is there a ‘tweak’ gene that boys have and girls don’t? Or is the fact that little girls are raised to be producers, and boys are raised to be innovators?

So many good questions raised. I can’t tell you how much I recommend that you all read these reports, regardless of your field. And my deepest and most sincere gratitude to Liz for pointing these out.

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