Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wanted: Geekettes

There’s an interesting piece in The New York Times today about the lack of women in computer science. While women are actually starting to approach parity in other hard science fields like math, and engineering, there are fewer women in computer engineering classes at places like MIT than there were 25 years ago. In other words, the number of women in the field is actually dropping. The article concludes that the reasons are varied and rather intangible, but one contributing factor could be stereotypes about men and women set at an early age:

Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology & Social Behavior, has written about the efforts in the 1990s to create computer games that would appeal to girls and, ultimately, increase the representation of women in computer science. In commenting as a co-contributor in a new book, “Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming,” Ms. Cassell writes of the failure of these efforts, “The girls game movement failed to dislodge the sense among both boys and girls that computers were ‘boys’ toys’ and that true girls didn’t play with computers.”

She said last week that some people in the field still believed that the answer to reversing declining enrollment was building the right game. Another school of thought is what she calls the “we won” claim because women have entered computer-related fields like Web site design that are not traditional computer science. Ms. Cassell points out that it’s not much of a victory, however. The pay is considerably less than in software engineering and the work has less influence on how computers are used, and whether this actually accounts for the diminishing numbers of female computer science majors remains unproved.

Ms. Cassell identifies another explanation for the drop in interest, which is linked to the pejorative figure of the “nerd” or “geek.” She said that this school of thought was: “Girls and young women don’t want to be that person.”

Cassell believes it has a lot to do with stereotypes. I definitely think that’s part of it. Interest in these fields develops at a young age, and if young girls are taught that computers are for boys, then they probably won’t engage with them. But there’s more to it than just stereotypes.

As I wrote in one of my three articles on women in academia last spring for Campus Progress, part of the problem with getting women to go into science, especially academic science, has a lot to do with mentorship. There’s a lot of reason to believe that women simply don’t get the support that’s needed to be competitive in academic sciences. There are few women to serve as role models and mentors. One way that a group of women in academic sciences approached this was to be peer mentors to one another, gathering every other week to talk about academic and career goals. This kind of mentorship becomes especially important in fields that are so heavily dominated by men.

Cross posted at Pushback.


Cynthia said...

I am married to a geek and he works for a tiny software development company. They have one female developer and all is fine with the team. They would love more female applicants, I am sure.

What I think would also draw women into computer science is to see how the skill set benefits society. That is probably why web development is the first stop on the CS train because it is a connecting technology and women (whether our individual ideologies let us believe this or not) seem to focus on people, not things.

When I took a college CS course (I was a math major) and hung out with geeks back then I did not see how it was relevant to my world. I was not interested and did not pursue it. But because I know what kind of software an activist like me might like to have, I now see how to combine the two.

Besides mentorship I see a need for "project-ship". If a mentor has interesting project ideas, this could make a difference. The challenge is to find women-focused software to explore during the college years instead of another video game or IT corporate something. What do women care about when they are 19? Dating? Career? Fashion? "Products"? We need to show how these areas could benefit from some new software. We can't expect the majority-male professors to know how to create these projects without some guidance. I propose women need to ask for new software and then farm it out to female computer science majors.

Recently I heard one undergraduate complain about match.com and how it didn't work the way she would have liked. hmmm. Tell your Computer Science sorority sister this!

Cryptic Star said...

I'm actually a senior computer science undergraduate, and as the only girl in my department's graduating class out of ~30, I think that it depends on two things - the attitude and mentoring of the woman, as well as the attitude of the men. However, part of the second half of that is related to the first.

Women cannot come into the field feeling like a victim - doing so is setting themselves up for substandard goals, which will inevitably make them feel like they are substandard in the field, a detrimental blow later on. This is where mentors come in. Unfortunately, my department only has one woman faculty member as well, but every little bit helps. These people need to actively encourage her to her limits. Male professors and other students can serve in this role, but the key is to get it early, otherwise they'll a) drop out, or b) be too depressed by the time it is caught to fix it easily. Other women in the field to commiserate with also helps, but can be a help in disguise - I've watched women in the years ahead of me (where there are multiple in the graduating class), and they start to clique together for group projects and everything, only serving to reinforce that "us against them" mentality.

By the same token, I think the guys in the department help a lot, although it can be intimidating at first. The men I have met in my classes are some of the nicest guys in the world and greatest friends, despite their geek exterior. I think what would really help women is to shrug off the stereotyping and take the time to get to know the men as well - nothing will help you feel more at home then having a working relationship with these guys.

The field is starting to mature to the point that it's going to take two very separate routes - computer scientists will be handling the academic and R&D side of things, while software engineers will be developing the software. And with software becoming so complicated and integrated into our lives, it won't be enough any more to get a degree in software engineering and wait to train in a discipline (for example, medical instruments) until your first job. Software engineers will need to start picking an application and studying it in undergraduate degrees.

Perhaps the bigger problem is how foreign it is - all of our K-12 education focuses on the big 4 - English, history, math, and science. Almost every degree you can get has some introduction to it in one of these four mandatory areas during the K-12 years, but computer science is conspicuously missing. While I'm not saying that programming should be mandatory (I don't think we even have room for it), it takes a lot of guts to stick your neck out and risk your choice of college on a discipline you know little about, especially since women are introduced so late.

And yet another problem to add on top of that is - even if a woman does make it through her undergraduate program - will she use her degree? A lot of women who get through it are still discouraged, and the workplace can sometimes be more difficult and even more skewed in terms of male to female ratio; the same goes for grad school too.

There's a great report out there that hypothesizes a lot of reasons why women are leaving the field: http://women.acm.org/documents/finalreport.pdf

Here's to hope in an increase in numbers...

Cibatarian said...

I got my BS in Computer Science from a Top 10 school in 1995 but did not pursue a career in it. There are several reasons. First off, it wasn't my passion. I could do the work and pass the classes but I ended up pursuing a career in medicine because that's my passion. However while I was in school, I found the university provided fantastic mentorship, including some excellent female faculty. I was the only female in most of my classes, but I never got the sense that there was anything wrong with me or anything. I had study partners in every class and got help as I needed it. Nobody held my hand, or treated me differently, which helped me feel like part of the crowd, in my mind.

Second, I found that it was really hard to excel in a computer science-related job as a normal-looking woman without being a complete genius in the field. I'll admit I wasn't a star computer scientist; I could do the work, but I was never going to revolutionize the field. As such I was always seen as "The Girl" and often received a variety of comments relating to how I "must have gotten the job." I found that many bosses had a difficult time relating to me because many had never had a female employee who wasn't an administrative assistant, and I had trouble communicating with them as a result. I never saw an average male computer scientist have this problem. A very close friend of mine, who is a genius in the field (and everything else), often tells me that in order to keep her sanity and avoid daily obnoxious comments about her being "The Girl" she wears androgynous clothing and keeps her hair pulled up. As a result, none of her co-workers even recognizes her when she goes out on the town.

I think the dearth of women in computer science is simply because none of them even considers it as a potential job for them; they can't see themselves doing the job. The vast majority of current computer scientists are either men or people of foreign birth whose jobs appear, from the outside, very esoteric. Most people looking in from the outside have no idea what a computer scientist does on an average day, and of those who do, most don't see how they could possibly do that job. More people need to be educated in computer science, not just programming and IT. That way, if more people go into the field, the likelihood of women, and people who can talk to them and treat them as equals increases.

Becca said...

We have the same perception problem in engineering. What I think would really help is how the field is treated. These fields are often treated as "geeky", "loner" professions. As a mid-career engineer, I can tell you there is nothing loner about being an engineer - the work is very social and team oriented. However, when these fields are described, they always focus on the technical nitty gritty and that combined with the stereotypes make it seem that other skills aren't valued. A good engineer has technical know-how, but also needs to be able to colloborate and communicate their results. Funny thing is that in the male-dominated math, science engineering education, competition and speed are rewarded above team work, communication and leadership, which is the opposite of skills valued when working engineering profession.

Kendrah said...

I'm 30 and just starting a new career path in the Computer Sciences. I have a BS and MS in biochemistry - and while I like my job working in the lab - I find the computer science aspects of where I "could" go in this field far more interesting.

Currently I am taking on-line courses in Java, and I am really struggling to find my way. I do agree that having a program you are interested in makes all the difference. Our second program involved creating a 3-species ecosystem simulation and I was all over that one...now I am creating a GUI for a rental car company - and I could really care less about it's usefulness, I am just trying to get it completed for the grade.

ANYWAY - I have no mentorship at all. I have no contacts in the programming community. My only contact comes from my professor via email - and that's only when I send direct questions about my program. I find myself frustrated and angry alot just because I feel like I have no support other than my boyfriend (who is awesome and I appreciate greatly) saying "You can do this, you will be fine". I often think to myself "What have I gotten myself into? Am I WAY over my head with this?"

As an undergrad, I think there was a Computer Science department - but I never heard about it or "knew" it was a viable path for someone like myself. I really loved math at the time and thought about majoring in it - but was told going down that path what would I do? Be a teacher or get a PhD and teach math...seriously. So I went the biology/chemistry route.

I think a better mentorship program would be ideal. As for myself - even if there was a female in Computer Science that wasn't my professor or in any department that I could just TALK to about it, I would feel better about it!

Cynthia said...

Is there an online community or some national women's CS club or sorority to access if a woman needs mentorship or even community? I spend so much time doing outreach work that it seems this is yet another area that needs woman-to-woman support. For instance, I host a monthly support group for pregnant women. They come to vent and learn from each other. "Support" is a loaded word in this society. Really it could be a CS Girls' Night Out or an online community. It must be out there already, right? Maybe it needs some media attention. The onus may be on those who need the community. Get it going and get girls logging in or even coming out for a drink/coffee/tea/dessert? Think of the networking possibilities too!

Kendrah said...

That's a great idea Cynthia! I'll have to check that out...surely there is something!? After being berated by my professor via email last night for not thinking things through every step properly for my project and also for going to other Java sources for explanation...I need something!

Also, I realized today - after designing experiments for the next week, that what I do on a daily basis in the lab is very different from what I am doing in programming.

So much of what we are studying is a "black box" of metabolism, we design protocols based on previous research...see if it works, and THEN we fine tune the results.

I could just use someone to bounce ideas off of - and to help me retrain thinking, and to help me figure out how to generically design my classes. Because what I find myself doing is getting overwhelmed with the details and overcomplicating everything!

Maybe even just a career changing group or something. My close girlfriends aren't much help - I've been told by more than one that I'm crazy for doing this, that it's a "boy's field - how boring!", that I should look into health care - that's more of a "female" arena, or my favorite: "have a baby" - no seriously, I was told that. Not that I have anything against motherhood or children (I would like to have a child at some point) - but I don't see how that's even comparable.

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