Christmas vacations are over but school has not started yet. I am finding myself in this buffer green zone between break and term, which looks peaceful on the calendar description but is actually brewing with activity. And this is my excuse for why I am late with this post, in case anyone cares for excuses. The actual reason is that, this past week, I found myself at a loss for words (I actually surprise myself as I write this sentence, but it is true) but today I had the same discussion twice (the second time on Facebook with Wendy Powley, Stephen Perelgut and Bill Lomax – thank you al for your thoughtful comments!) and then my colleague Heather Zwicker, one of the editrixes of the amazing Hook & Eye feminist/academic blog, suggested that I talk about the issue and then my words came to me! So here I go, pondering three questions:
- Why are there so few women in Computing Science?
- Should we do something about it?
- If so, what?
It seems to me that the fundamental reason why there are few women in CS is because our society still (and always) has a gender-specific value system. I recently saw Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk and her point (and I am oversimplifying but not fundamentally distorting her point here) that “successful women are not likable” made a strong impression to me, and it certainly rings true. And I think that the problem is more general than “women leaders are not likable”; it is more that “women in non-female positions are not likable”! The crux of it is that society expects women to be in either “nurturing” or “sexy” or “ethereal muse” roles, and appreciates and validates them when they succeed in such roles; on the flip side, society validates and rewards men in “builder/provider/protector” roles. This (sort of) explains why natural sciences, in general, do not suffer as much from lack of women as computer science: women mathematicians or physicists or chemists pursue an “understanding” task; computer science, a discipline close to engineering, involves the “construction” of things and is much more nitty/gritty than natural sciences; as a result computer science, like engineering, repulses women much more.
As human beings, we all are taught our natural roles early on they become our “default” paths. All human beings need to be fulfilled at a personal level, and work is a means to this end; when work causes alienation at a personal level, it ends up being counterproductive as a means of personal fulfillment. Young women run the risk of being perceived as “not female enough” if they assume the “geek” persona and this is too high a cost in the junior-high, high-school world. And later, once they are in the business, they have to weigh the costs of “not having a peer group in the workplace” or “being invisible” or “being too visible” against the satisfaction they get from their job successes. And as the demands of natural roles increase – children come and need breastfeeding and driving to extracurricular activities, the potential rewards from the natural roles also increase and overcome the professional fulfillment. It takes an accident or substantial energy or a different temperament to become an exception; it takes an inspiring teacher, the sense of a calling, the need to make money, or a lack of sensitivity to one’s culture:-)
So, should we do something about it? Yes we should! We should allow and encourage people to maximize their happiness by supporting them in matching their intellectual talents to their profession and nurturing their families, in a gender-blind manner. If our society ever learns to value contribution in a gender-neutral way, women will explore all their options and will objectively choose their profession based on their potential success in it; and professional success that does not cost their personal and family lives will become truly fulfilling and women will be less likely to drop out; and men will be able to equally contribute to parenting without fear that they will be seeing as irresponsible and failed providers. And getting down to a more practical level, technical jobs are among the most well paying ones today; guiding women away from these professions is an effective means of subjugating them, which is not fair! And I know that life is not fair, but we are talking here about “what should be” and life should be fair!
What should we do then? Here is where I run out of steam, but that’s not a problem really because it is all the usual things (and everything else we can come up with):
- reach out to women and introduce computer-science with non-geeky examples, blending natural roles and technology (this is why many schools report successes with interdisciplinary CS programs like bioinformatics);
- teach CS in segregated class, so that women can ignore their role-specific mandates while in class (some segregated programs exist and report success)
- establish gender-aware recruitment policies (so that diversity becomes part of the recruitment objectives)
- help women not to drop out, with mentoring
So that’s where I stand on the issue… and you?
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