Women in CS in Qatar: It’s Complicated

May 3, 2010 at 3:55 pm 17 comments

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.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , .

Is Media Computation “bait and switch”? Science for Non-Scientists: The “Two Cultures” debate continues

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thinkingwiththings  |  May 3, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Your report from Qatar is similar to reports from Malaysia, another Muslim country. There, as I recall the talk I heard, part of the attraction of computer science for women is that it can be done from home, or from a more private or cloistered environment. So this is the paradox: in the US we see degrees in CS as potentially liberating for women, because computing jobs often pay better than other jobs that women with equivalent years of schooling have access to. In other nations, part of the attraction of these jobs for women–and their parents/husbands–is that this is work that does not require women to be out and about in public, interacting with males to whom they are not related. Very thought provoking!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alfred Thompson. Alfred Thompson said: Women in CS in Qatar: It's Complicated http://bit.ly/bnkaTA Interesting post by @guzdial […]

  • 3. Alex Rudnick  |  May 3, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Really interesting!

    So for the women who are the most covered, it’s pretty likely that they’ll work from home?

    Do we know what workplaces are like in Qatar? Are there many mixed-gender development shops or IT departments?

  • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 4, 2010 at 12:44 am

    No, I don’t know, Alex — good questions. BTW, slides from our panel are at http://home.cc.gatech.edu/guzdial/183. I agree, Sarah — I blogged on the Malaysia data (http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/post/PLNK1Q6WIB4S5J49D) and got in trouble for it (http://geekfeminism.org/2009/08/18/in-malaysia-women-are-52-of-cs-graduates-so-what/), and do see similarities.

  • 5. Katie Tam  |  May 4, 2010 at 1:05 am

    “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.”. It does make sense. You are right.

  • 6. Karen Lopez  |  May 4, 2010 at 7:52 am

    In the accreditation visits I’ve made to Doha, what strikes me most about talking to female students is that the believe their computing studies will give them the greatest career opportunities abroad. And sadly, most will not be allowed to take jobs outside of Qatar.

    The male students spoke less about careers, many saying that they will not work after graduating; it’s more about the title than the career.

    So female students do see the study of computing as opening doors.

    The reason why the foreign Programs are mixed gender is that they are mandated to provide a learning experience as close as possible to the same experience in their home countries. Qatar University reflect local customs, the other institutions reflect their home cultures, within legal limits.

    • 7. LaShanda  |  June 9, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      I am trying to discover more information about adult learning of women in Qatar. Your statement about jobs I found interesting what are the more frequent degrees sought by the women of Qatar, and do you believe they are aware of the possibility of employment outcomes in the future?

  • 8. Alfred Thompson  |  May 5, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    I never stop being amazed at the diversity of cultures around the world and how it impacts CS education. It is also interesting that in many societies the less status jobs have the more they fall to women and the higher status to me. This somehow bothers me.

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  May 6, 2010 at 4:56 pm

      I learned a lot yesterday at the Museum of Islamic Art about how *little* I know about the Eastern World. For example, there was a conqueror named Timur in the 1300’s who conquered from Afghanistan and Persia, through to Delhi. That’s a huge amount of land and people, and I’d never heard of him. No, I’m not particularly a historian, but this feels like not knowing about Alexander the Great or Napoleon. I got a sense for the divide between Western and Eastern cultures that I’d not realized previously.

  • […] Women in CS in Qatar: It's Complicated […]

  • 11. Interesting Links 10 May 2010  |  May 10, 2010 at 7:07 am

    […] Different About Boys’ and Girls’ Interest in Computing? And Mark Guzdial writes about Women in CS in Qatar: It’s Complicated. That last one is particularly full of surprises. If you are all interested in computer science […]

  • 12. The Third Bit » Blog Archive » It’s Complicated  |  May 11, 2010 at 7:39 am

    […] Guzdial recently posted a short, thought-provoking look at women in CS in Qatar. As he says, it’s […]

  • […] inspiring, there are curves in the road, which are hard to see around.  You may have read my post from Qatar – the women in CS at Qatar University are keen to build new applications, to embrace […]

  • […] 14, 2010 I found this an interesting synchronicity with my blog post last week about women in Qatar and how they prefer gender-segregated schools, even as they embrace “geekiness.”  This […]

  • […] Why is the gender difference so shifted in Qatar as compared with US and Europe?  Do these students have a different perception or definition of the field than do students here in the United States?  Or are they deciding based on other factors than whether CS is “nerdy/geeky” or not?  While the Computer Science and MS numbers are amazing, I find the huge numbers for Computer Engineering just as interesting and even more puzzling.  Why would Computer Engineering be an even bigger draw than Computer Science? […]

  • […] argument is that there are so many women in CS in Qatar because the government emphasizes it.  I visited Qatar, and spoke to women in CS there — no one once said that they were there because their government encouraged them.  It had […]

  • […] ignore the scholars there and ostracize them, for rules over which they may have no control?  As in Qatar, computer science students in Saudi Arabia are majority […]


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