Lack of women in Computing is NOT due to discrimination: NYtimes and National Academy

February 8, 2011 at 10:08 am 11 comments

The New York Times included this brief reference to a paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in the middle of a fascinating piece about discrimination among psychologists.  They could have done a whole article just on this paper. Here’s the claim in brief:  Why aren’t there more women in CS? Because women choose not to be there, not because of discrimination.  The focus in BPC should be on informing female students about the options in CS, then, not trying to correct for bias or discrimination.  However, we can take action like making academy for family-friendly so that more women choose academia, but that’s making the academy better for both men and women — not an issue of bias.

Check out the abstract: “To better understand women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields and its causes, we reprise claims of discrimination and their evidentiary bases. Based on a review of the past 20 y of data, we suggest that some of these claims are no longer valid and, if uncritically accepted as current causes of women’s lack of progress, can delay or prevent understanding of contemporary determinants of women’s underrepresentation. We conclude that differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained, and that such choices could be influenced and better informed through education if resources were so directed.”

Instead, the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending tens of millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias. But that assumption has been repeatedly contradicted, most recently in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two Cornell psychologists, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. After reviewing two decades of research, they report that a woman in academic science typically fares as well as, if not better than, a comparable man when it comes to being interviewed, hired, promoted, financed and published.

“Thus,” they conclude, “the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort. Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past.” Instead of presuming discrimination in science or expecting the sexes to show equal interest in every discipline, the Cornell researchers say, universities should make it easier for women in any field to combine scholarship with family responsibilities.

via Social Psychologists Detect Liberal Bias Within –

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  February 8, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Hi Mark,

    This is certainly in accord with my prejudices and local anecdotal observations.

    It would serve the whole set of issues well if more studies could be done to nail down or refute this set of findings.

    (For example, one large tricky area is the perception of rivalries and competition amongst under-represented populations and of “represented” populations. The former often view it as “discrimination” and the latter usually view it as “normal competition”.)




  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  February 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

    There is discrimination in all areas. My wife found bias against her as a history major some years ago. It is not clear to me that bias is worse/stronger in computer science than other fields. There is a perception of bias probably caused my the enviornment in many computer labs. But I think that is a function of who is there and not an attempt to keep people out.

    The push back I hear when people say women are choosing not to go into CS is that one is trying to “blame the victim.” This is, I think, unfair. Plus it assumes that we have done a good job of giving women a good understanding of what CS is and kept them out. It seems more likely that women and others are making decisions based on incorrect or not enough information. That may or may not be the “fault” of those of us already in the field but it is not, again my opinion, an attempt to keep anyone out.

  • 3. Mark Miller  |  February 8, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I echo Alan’s comment that this agrees with my prejudices and anecdotal experiences. I saw women taking CS as an undergrad (though very few), and by and large, if they made it past the initial “weeder” courses, they seemed to feel comfortable being in the program, and they performed well in it.

    The worry about gender bias is not exclusive to CS. I’ve heard female scientists express this concern about the sciences generally, though what few anecdotes I’ve heard have not suggested that there is outright discrimination, just that it’s “very tough” on women, though I haven’t gotten a sense of why that is.

    I’ve heard the concern expressed that in the graduate and Ph.D. levels it’s tough on both men AND women, particularly those married with children, and that both genders are tending to choose to not pursue higher degrees in science and engineering because of the demands they place on families.

    Just the vague sense I’ve gotten when people have discussed the stuff that tends to drive women out of the sciences is it’s a) the level of (or perhaps type of) competition for advancement and tenure, and b) the bruising one’s ego can take when engaging in controversial issues, especially about their own work. Perhaps there is an element of “typical” male vs. female psychology at work here, and perhaps understanding that would help bridge a barrier without sacrificing important processes in these fields, but this is just me speculating. I could be off base about all of this.

    I think I understand what this excerpt is getting at in terms of “solving old problems.” I recently had an argument with a female CS professor on the issue of discrimination in the field, and it felt as though we were from different worlds, not just in terms of gender experience, but also in terms of the environment we grew up in. She’s older than me, and she remembered experiencing discrimination against her pursuing computers (something that she was and is deeply interested in) and having to fight her way through it, both from her family, and in the schools she attended. I, on the other hand, did not see discrimination against females, or against race, when it came to computers in my school, or work life. She claimed that it must’ve been there, but I just couldn’t see it, that I wasn’t properly trained in picking out discriminatory actions taken be authority figures, no matter how subtle. I’m open to that possibility, but I would need to be shown my blind spots if I have any in that regard.

    • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  February 8, 2011 at 9:56 pm

      One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that all-male groups in professional circumstances have very different dynamics than mixed groups. There’s a civilizing factor that women add to male groups…but that civilizing factor also at times impedes open communication. Being polite takes more time than being direct, and suppressing emotions in order to be polite drains energy that could be applied to technical problems. Of course, failing to be polite can often burn energy unnecessarily, too. And an all male project I’m on now recently had a member drop out at least in part because of personality conflicts.

      Although I’ve never had the opportunity to interact with a female-dominated group in professional situations, I know that in social situations when women significant outnumber men they behave very differently than when numbers are more balanced.

      I have no idea how this balances out in the end. I suspect it tends to be highly situation dependent, and behaviors are subject to substantial (mis)interpretation.

      • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  February 10, 2011 at 2:07 am

        If you want to experience female-dominated groups in a moderately professional situation, join the local PTA. All the parent organizations I’ve been part of at my son’s schools have been at least 90% female (except when there were fewer than 10 involved and my participation raised the fraction above 10%).

        The dynamics is a little different from a male-dominated mixed group, but not much. All-male groups (and, by report, all-female groups) seem to have different dynamics than mixed groups, but the fraction of the mixture doesn’t seem to me to make a huge difference.

  • 6. Jenny  |  February 9, 2011 at 12:53 am

    I read the Ceci/Williams study conclusions a bit differently – that overt discrimination may be a thing of the past, but women still have to make “choices” that men do not and this still represents an inequity.

    At least the National Science Foundation isn’t “spending tens of millions of dollars” studying possible discrimination against men who fall off the tenure track because they become fathers. That would be so wasteful!

    • 7. Mark Miller  |  February 9, 2011 at 7:50 pm

      Maybe I see what you’re saying here. It seems to me the study was narrowly focused on whether the gender imbalance in positions in universities, in certain fields, was being caused by a culture and/or policy of discrimination within those institutions. While it did look at women’s lives and their choices, the sole criteria was on “whether we should still blame the institution for the issue (and this was based on specific criteria), or whether it’s due to a circumstance outside the institution’s control.”

      I think what you’ve pointed out is that, given the criteria they used, it’s outside of the institutions’ control. Not that there aren’t other issues related to the inequity, such as the willingness of men to become house-husbands so that their wives can pursue their ambitions, which require them to be busy with their career, and so they can’t spend as much time with the kids. I think it’s fair to say, though, that this is a societal issue, and not something that university policies and culture can change to a great degree. It seems to me that’s a conversation for men and women to have with each other, especially before they decide to get together and have children, but I could be missing something.

      Whether universities demand too much of people pursuing higher degrees and positions within universities, it seems to me that’s a different issue from the one about institutional discrimination against a gender. From what I’ve heard, both men and women who want to pursue Ph.D.s and tenure face this issue, and I think a legitimate case could be made that universities at the post-graduate level discriminate against families, though it would take some effort to make it, since universities will say, “We provide family housing, and programs to support them,” and they could point to cases of people married with children who got their Ph.D. (though tenure might be another matter).

  • 8. Bijan Parsia  |  February 9, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Oo, I’ll add to the maleness of this thread!

    My experience (in computer science) is that post graduate women experience a significantly high level of sexual harassment of various sorts. (25% or so at a significant level, up through career interruption; fairly small sample size; a clear biasing factor in my reporting is my willingness to speak out about it).

    Note that the abstract says:

    We conclude that differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained [emph added], and that such choices could be influenced and better informed through education if resources were so directed.

    (more when i get a chance to read through the paper) So what are the definitions of discrimination and of constrained choice? Constrained choice seems compatible with women not finishing because they were sexually harassed and with there being no “discrimiantion” (in the sense of key decisions to hire, advance, etc. being made on the basis of sex).

    So, I would LOVE IT if sexism in computer science wasn’t a huge problem, but I’m a bit skeptical about it.

    The NYT article wasn’t very good:

    “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

    It is as if Dr. Haidt had never heard of prior probability and buttressing evidence. Or the connection to harm. Or…

    • 9. Mark Miller  |  February 9, 2011 at 11:05 pm

      Oo, I’ll add to the maleness of this thread!

      Yeah, goes right along with the fact, so I hear, that when conferences for “women in technology” are held, most in attendance are men…

      As far as I’m concerned this is an open thread, so if women want to join in, they’re more than welcome. I just hope they feel free to do so.

      Constrained choice seems compatible with women not finishing because they were sexually harassed and with there being no “discrimination” (in the sense of key decisions to hire, advance, etc. being made on the basis of sex).

      That’s possible. As the article seems to indicate, they probably only looked at whether women had the same career opportunities as men in universities, and found that they were about equal, but they may not have looked at the work environment, the interaction between members of the faculty, seeing that as being outside their research criteria.

      Your claim that there’s sexual harassment against women at the post-graduate level I think can be confirmed by other reports that talk about this, such as, “Gender Equity in Academia: Bad News From the Trenches, and Some Possible Solutions,” in “Perspective on Politics”. There’s an article that talks about it here. The thing that got me pissed off as I read it was the experience of women getting into what were perceived as high-value positions, but then the responsibilities the male chair or dean had are transferred somewhere else, and they’re given reduced responsibilities, or their responsibilities are changed from the ones their male predecessors had. So they got the job, but it loses its prestige. I felt like if that happened to me, I would feel just as jilted. I have to be careful, though, because I don’t know what some of the terms used mean, and I don’t know if their male counterparts ever encountered the same thing. So it’s difficult for me to make out where there was a complaint I’d agree with. I just had the sense of, “If this is true, and it were me, I’d be pissed as well.” An aspect that struck me in the summary was that while it talked about instances of harassment, it characterized them as innocent, as if the men who did these things didn’t know there might be anything objectionable in what they did.

  • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  February 10, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Jenny, you make an excellent point. Our culture does place more of the family burden on women. Is academia being discriminatory if it doesn’t respond to an inequity in a culture? Who’s responsibility is it to address inequities? I don’t really know how much blame to place on academia here.

    Mark, on the point: Yeah, goes right along with the fact, so I hear, that when conferences for “women in technology” are held, most in attendance are men… — I don’t know where you’re hearing that, or what conferences you’ve attended, but in my experience, that’s completely false. I’ve been one of six guys on the dance floor with 2000 women at Grace Hopper. NCWIT and BPC meetings tend to be female-majority. I suggest questioning your sources.

    • 11. Mark Miller  |  February 11, 2011 at 1:23 am

      I’ll take your word for it. I recall hearing this from a lady who gave a speech on women in computing some years ago, though my memory could be mistaken. I didn’t take note of it at the time. It was just something I recalled, and my memory is not always that good on these things.

      It seemed to match with my experience, just in discussions on this subject, which come up periodically. I remember the e-mail discussion that kicked things off before the Rebooting Computing Summit was on this topic. Again, my memory could be faulty, but my recollection is that most of the people who were talking about it were men. I tried to encourage women to participate in the discussion, saying, “Hey, I know it seems like it’s just us guys talking about this, but please, feel free to join in.” Some of the female participants did join in, but it seemed like the discussion was male-dominated, the irony of which never escapes me, and makes me feel a little uneasy. I think men have something valuable to say about the subject, but at the same time we ought to listen to women’s impressions of, and experiences in the field, since as best I can tell that’s what the discussion is really about, when you get down to it. I’m happy to do that. It’s just that I always see men starting these discussions, and mostly male participation in it. I wish that were different, but I don’t have a remedy for it, except to leave myself out of it, which I find a bit difficult to do…


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