Archive for May 3, 2010

Women in CS in Qatar: It’s Complicated

As mentioned, I’m at a meeting of the ACM Education Board at Qatar University in Doha.  We’re exploring the possibility of larger summits or even computing education conferences here in the Gulf States and in India.  We’re learning a lot about cultural differences and the challenge of even understanding the gender balance in computer science here.  I’m here with Dame Dr. Wendy Hall, President of the ACM, who keeps the gender issue front-and-center in discussions of computing education challenges in Qatar.  It’s complicated.

Members of Qatar University’s first ACM Student Chapter, and QU CS students with Dan Garcia and Wendy Hall

On the first day, we asked about the representation of women in computer science at Qatar University.  We were told that it was a real problem — CS is over 70% female and they’d like to attract more males. (Dan Garcia proposed starting an “ACM-M” chapter to attract more men.  We started considering an “NCMIT” and a wonderfully named “CRA-M” subcommittee.)

Why so few men?  The faculty told us (with some pain) that computer science is considered a lesser degree here.  The men want “engineer” in their degree, because the government says that engineers have to be paid more.  Some men who are interested in computer science go to school abroad, leaving the women who can’t really leave Qatar.  We were told that the faculty were considering adding more Information Systems classes to the Computer Science program, to make their students more marketable.  We were told (multiple times, in fact) that the computing culture in Qatar is more about adopting and adapting software for the Middle East culture and setting, with relatively little programming of new applications.  There’s a government push to innovate more in technology here, but it’s still mostly about modifying than creating.

Today, we heard from representatives from CMU’s Qatar campus.  Their gender split is 50/50!  They emphasize developing “a Geek culture,” because they claimed that sense of wanting to learn and digging in to figure it out yourself was missing from the student culture.  Wendy had some concerns with that.  “Maybe you’re emphasizing the very thing that’s keeping the women away!”

Then as we talked more with the faculty, and in particular, with the almost-all female CS students of Qatar University who attended the sessions, we realized that the story was more complicated.  The female students avoided CMU Qatar.  They didn’t avoid CMU Qatar because of the “geek culture.”  If anything, I’d say that the QU CS students who spoke to us relished geek culture.  I was amazed at how eager they were to program “robots, animation, mobiles — anything! We want to be challenged!”  It turned out that some of the women had started exploring the programming competition problems available on the Web, all on their own. They don’t have any programming competitions here, but the y wanted more programming practice with more challenging problems. (How geeky is that!)  Dan Garcia of Berkeley asked them if they’d like more IT in their classes, and several students told him that they really preferred the straight CS, without dealing with management kinds of issues.  No, they avoided CMU Qatar because CMU Qatar does not segregate their classes by gender.

Qatar University has two campuses, one for men and one for women.  Men are never invited to the women’s campus.  The faculty advisor to the QU’s student chapter of the ACM, Ryan Riley, told me that women were sometimes invited to the men’s campus, but some women wouldn’t come.  He said that some of the “most covered” women (whose veils and garments only allowed their eyes to be visible) wouldn’t even come to the ACM event today because it was mixed gender.  The women who choose QU over CMU’s Qatar campus were explicitly choosing to be in an all-female culture — and as geeky as they could get it.

I’m left wondering how similar and how different this situation is from the one in the United States.  Yeah, there are a lot of women who are turned off by “Geek Culture,” but maybe there are also many, like the students here at QU, who embrace it.  Maybe other factors, like the gender segregation, come into play.  Certainly, factors like the prestige of the field and how well it pays, enter into the equation, and that differs radically in different cultural settings.  A focus on technology innovation vs. adaptation also plays a role in making a field attractive, and that differs between cultures, too.

I’m not a trained ethnographer, and I won’t claim that we have done anything like a “study” here.  But in two days of asking the same questions to faculty and students at different campuses, I do feel like we learned something important here — that it’s complicated.  Not that issues of gender balance in computing at home in the United States are easy! I expected the issues to be similar enough here in Qatar that I would have some insights into the issues.  Rather, I’m finding a greater appreciation for the interactions of many variables in these students’ decisions about computer science as a major and as a career.

May 3, 2010 at 3:55 pm 17 comments

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