Teasing apart the issues of women in computing: Impact of Hollywood

November 25, 2013 at 1:30 am 3 comments

The NYTimes just had a piece about the lack of women in computing.

There is, of course, no pop-culture corollary for computer science. A study financed by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that recent family films, children’s shows and prime-time programs featured extraordinarily few characters with computer science or engineering occupations, and even fewer who were female. The ratio of men to women in those jobs is 14.25 to 1 in family films and 5.4 to 1 in prime time. Whenever high-ranking people in the tech industry meet, whether at the White House or a Clinton Global Initiative conference, one executive says, “we almost always walk away from the discussion having come to the conclusion we need a television show.” Nearly every tech or nonprofit executive I spoke with mentioned their hope that “The Social Network” has improved the public’s perception of programmers. They also mentioned how bummed they were that the hit film didn’t include more prominent female characters. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences now offers a program called the Sciences and Entertainment Exchange that gives writers and producers free consultation with all kinds of scientists. Natalie Portman’s character in the superhero movie “Thor,” for instance, started out as a nurse. After a consultation with scientists introduced through the exchange, she became an astrophysicist.

via I Am Woman, Watch Me Hack – NYTimes.com.

It’s a big and complicated issue why there are so few women in computing in the US.  The author of the NYTimes article thinks that it’s about exposure.

Part of the issue, it seems, is exposure. Most people don’t come into contact with computer scientists or engineers in their daily lives, and don’t really understand what they do. American schools don’t do a great job of teaching computer science skills either.

Trying to remedy this are numerous nonprofit and educational organizations, among them Code.org, which lobbies to get more computer science classes in schools. Others try to provide computer science lessons outside of a traditional school setting. Girls Who Code, for example, has eight-week boot camps that teach middle and high school girls programming skills – in languages like Java, PHP, and Python – as well as algorithms, Web design, robotics, and mobile app development.

via Nudging Girls Toward Computer Science – NYTimes.com.

Which seems to say that it’s mass media (like Hollywood) that deters women from computer science — the argument suggested below.  I disagree.  Yes, students are getting uninformed ideas about computer science from mass media, but that’s because they don’t see the real thing anywhere.  People don’t leave Disneyworld thinking that six-foot rats can talk — because they have some other experience of rodents.  Our real challenge is giving students the opportunity to see a real programmer, real programming, real program code.

There’s a well-researched, much-fretted-over dearth of women in the tech sector, more specifically in the field of computer science. According to the Times’ Catherine Rampell, the dismal numbers of women majoring in computer science, or becoming computer programmers don’t seem to be improving, either: just 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they plan on majoring in computer science, despite the fact that, as far as professional fields go, computer science and engineering offer college grads some of the most promising employment opportunities. We need computer programs and bridges, college, not another pack of aimless fedora-wearers chain-smoking Parliaments outside of the liberal arts building.

via How Hollywood Helps Deter Women from Computer Science.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  November 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    I’ve been hearing this refrain for just shy of twenty years. I don’t buy it.

    I mean, Hollywood? This is classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for territory. We already suffer from a “computer science is just writing programs alone in the dark” problem; what would Hollywood show? A woman programmer very alone and very stressed, who by the end of the movie she gets friends and ditches programming. Or do we think Hollywood represents every other profession fairly and not for the laughs?

  • 2. Michael Kirkpatrick  |  November 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    I remember seeing the “I am Woman, Watch Me Hack” article a couple weeks ago when it first came out, and my first reaction was: How lazy must these people be to not even attempt to create a decent portrayal of women in computing. And, no, I wasn’t talking about Hollywood!

    At the top of the article was this creepy image of a solitary female using a laptop to, apparently, spy on another solitary female working at a computer. And then there’s the title, referencing the male-dominated hacker culture. How much more effective would the article have been if the picture had consisted of a collaborative setting with a mixed gender group with both laptops and whiteboard illustrations? What about a title that had to do with “Unleashing the Power of Code for All?”

    It seemed sadly ironic that the article committed the sin of poor imagery while decrying the sin of poor imagery.

  • 3. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  November 26, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Sure, presentation of computer scientists – basic exposure to computer scientists and opportunities to use computer science is super important for bolstering underrepresented students participation in CS.
    I had to laugh – “Nearly every tech or nonprofit executive I spoke with mentioned their hope that “The Social Network” has improved the public’s perception of programmers.”
    This is really quite funny. Which public? I don’t want to unfairly generalize – as the author’s respondents have done – but is the ‘Social Network’ really making in-roads to underrepresented students? [It’s doubtful especially given how younger students frequently relate to movie characters e.g.:

    Greenberg, B. S., & Mastro, D. E. (2008). Children, race, ethnicity, and media. In The handbook of children, media, and development (pp. 74–97). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

    Mastro, D. E. (2003). A social identity approach to understanding the impact of television messages. Communication Monographs, 70(2), 98-113.


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