Discussing the film “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap”

April 28, 2017 at 7:00 am 5 comments

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.


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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rademi  |  April 28, 2017 at 8:33 am

    If “we realized that we couldn’t teach programming well” why do we have “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”?

    One answer has to do with HR practices. Another has to do with management practices.

    A solid education is valuable, but it’s not always relevant. So much of what passes for economics nowadays seems to have to do with fads rather than other issues – consider http://fortune.com/2013/10/01/top-5-jobs-in-silicon-valley/ as some evidence of that. Which suggests that the current situation is not stable (and we’ve had plenty of other examples of economic bubbles “popping”).

    Anyways, it might be worth some time chatting with some of your counterparts who deal with HR training, business education and perhaps some of the other “soft” departments – they have an influence here, also, as well as perhaps access to observations that might be relevant but non-obvious? (Or, probably, you have already been doing this?)

  • 2. Beth Quinn  |  April 28, 2017 at 8:35 am

    Thanks Mark, especially for the last comment. This is about social justice and we shouldn’t be shy about saying so.

  • 3. Cody Henrichsen  |  April 28, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Mark and Beth, I wish that social justice was enough but living in a VERY red state the CBA factor is one that can get parents, boards of ed, and other policy making groups to come to a table rather than blow off the options.

  • 4. Mike Zamansky (@zamansky)  |  April 28, 2017 at 9:23 am

    While I hate the “by high school it’s too late line,” at least in NY it might become a reality.

    Since Bloomberg destroyed large comprehensive high schools, kids have been forced to specialize earlier and earlier so post Bloomberg but prior to CS4All, if a kid in NY wasn’t exposed to CS prior to high school it would likely never get on their radar.

    Now, we’ll see what happens with the implementation of CS4All and general pushback to Bloomberg era “reforms.”

  • 5. alfredtwo  |  April 28, 2017 at 9:33 am

    I took my first CS class in college. I was hooked then and honestly the great teacher I had there was part of it. So I also don’t think it is ever too late. But getting kids (boys and girls) interested early is still a good thing.

    BTW I would have loved to have taken CS in HS but an A in calc as a Junior was required to take it as a senior. In a school of 5,000 students with only one computer (we’re talking late 1960s) a weed out might have made sense but sure doesn’t today.


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