Joanne Cohoon in US News on women in CS

January 12, 2012 at 9:43 am 6 comments

Joanne does wonderful work in understanding the factors that influence women’s participation in CS and STEM more generally.  Great to see her work getting some visibility at the US News website.

Especially at a time when unemployment is high and our economy is weak, we cannot afford to lose anyone with the technical skills to create a sustainable future, improve health, build our cyber and physical infrastructure, and enhance personal and societal security.

A diverse set of minds needs to tackle those problems. But we are largely missing out on women’s intelligence, creativity, and values in solving the problems we all face.

Why is this so?

Evidence continues to mount that capable women in technical fields have less confidence than men that they will be successful. Researchers at Stanford University recently published new findings that women engineering students perform as well as men, but are more likely than men to switch to a different major. These women switch because they don’t believe that their skills are good enough and they don’t feel like they “fit” in engineering.

via Wanted: Technical Women – STEM Education (

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  January 12, 2012 at 10:28 am

    This whole area — to me at least — requires more normalization before it can even be understood.

    For example — to me again — this begs to find out the correlation between confidence and actual ability. I.e. how competent are the men vs how confident? Similarly with the women.

    I say this because — anecdotally — I’ve run into lots of very confident computer people who are not remotely competent, and most of these are men.

    They tend to stick around in part because of their confidence, and a passel of them makes a self-confirming cargo cult.

    This is one of those threshold issues again. For example there could be lots of incompetent engineers being turned out both male and female, confident or not. Especially in computing.

    Do we actually know?



    • 2. Cecily  |  January 12, 2012 at 11:15 am

      When I was an LDS/mormon missionary, I was told that “the sisters(female missionaries) had to work twice as hard as the elders(male missionaries) to be considered half as good- fortunately that’s not difficult”. I have found the same thing to be true as a woman in computer science. 😉
      I also had a professor at BYU comment that the distribution of male missionaries tended to follow a normal curve, but the distribution of female missionaries tended to be more bi-modal; the sisters were either really good or really bad with not so many “average” sisters. I have found that often this is also true in computer science.

      • 3. Alan Kay  |  January 12, 2012 at 11:32 am

        Hi Cecily

        One of my main partners in crime at Xerox PARC was Adele Goldberg (who later became President of the ACM and CEOs of companies, etc.).

        She told me back then that when she had told one of her friends that she was going to get a Phd in Computing, her friend said “But you’ll have to work more than twice as hard as a man!” Adele’s reply was “Is that all?”

        One thing that would be great to have real data on is the sometimes pointed out idea that discrimination happens the strongest in the middle of the bell curves.

        The idea is that really good, really hard working people have a very good chance to move to the top. When I look at the top people I know, every one of them has “worked more than twice as hard as a man” regardless of gender or race, etc.

        (The idea that top people have to work their butts off — and do — is a hard unpopular sell in many areas.)

        The middle seems to sort itself out very differently, and many times via forms of discrimination. I think this obtains strongly even after lots of sorting has been done (for example after PhDs have been obtained, there is still a huge middle in academia, and a lot of what happens there is not pretty and certainly not equitable).



    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  January 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

      The work that I know in this area (e.g., Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher in “Unlocking the Clubhouse”) suggests that among students with similar ability (as measured by performance on programming assignments and written exams), women tend to under-estimate their ability and men tend to over-estimate their ability. Colleen Lewis in her study of attrition among CS students at Berkeley saw similar trends.

      • 5. Alan Kay  |  January 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm

        Maybe we should get Adele to give some clinics!

  • […] and challenging response to Joanne’s USNews blog piece in Forbes.  The author argues that women aren’t good at raising women who can compete with […]


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