Archive for April 28, 2017

Discussing the film “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap”

Barbara Ericson and I were invited to be discussants at a showing of “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap.”  I highly recommend the movie.  It was fascinating to watch, made all the more fun by seeing heroes that I know appear, like Nathan Ensmenger, Avis Yates Rivers, Jane Margolis, Ari Schlesinger, Colleen Lewis, and Maria Klawe.

Afterward, I got to make a few comments — expanding on some of the movie’s points, and disagreeing with others.

The movie makes the argument that men and women aren’t wired differently.  We are all capable of learning computer science.  They didn’t have to make a biological argument.  In the Middle East and many other parts of the world, computer science is female-dominated. Clearly, it’s not biology.  (Perhaps surprisingly, I recently got asked that question at one of the top institutes of technology in the United States: “Don’t women avoid CS because their brains work differently?”  REALLY?!?)

The movie talks about how companies like IBM and RCA started advertising in the 1970’s and 1980’s for “men” with “the right stuff,” and that’s when the field started masculinizing.  They don’t say anything about the role that educators played, the story that Nathan Ensmenger has talked about in his book “The Computer Boys Take Over.”  When we realized that we couldn’t teach programming well, we instead started to filter out everyone who would not become a great programmer. For example, that’s when calculus was added into computer science degree requirements.  Women were less interested in the increasingly competitive computer science programs, especially when there were obvious efforts to weed people out.  That was another factor in the masculinization of the field.

Many of those interviewed in the movie talk about the importance of providing “role models” to women in computing.  The work of researchers like the late (and great) Joanne Cohoon show that role models aren’t as big a deal as we might think.  Here’s a thought experiment to prove the point: There are biology departments where the faculty are even more male than most CS departments, yet those departments are still female-dominant.  What we do know is that women and URM students need encouragement to succeed in CS, and that that encouragement can come from male or female teachers.

Finally, several interviewed in the movie say that we have to get girls interested in CS early because high school or university is “way too late.”  That’s simply not true.  The chair of my School of Interactive Computing, Annie Antón, didn’t meet computing until she was an undergraduate, and now she’s full Professor in a top CS department.  Yes, starting earlier would likely attract more women to computing, but it’s never “too late.”

After the movie, an audience member asked me if I really believed that diversity was important to build better products, and how would we prove that.  I told him that I didn’t think about it that way.  I’m influenced by Joanna Goode and Jane Margolis.  Computing jobs are high-paying and numerous.  Women and under-represented minority students are not getting to those jobs because they’re not getting access to the opportunites, either because of a lack of access to computing education or because of bias and discrimination that keep them out.  It’s not about making better products.  This is a social justice issue.

 

April 28, 2017 at 7:00 am 5 comments


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