Posts tagged ‘women in computing’
Nathan Ensmenger has not only written a fascinating book about how computing became so male (see book link here), he also maintains a blog that updates the story. The quote and picture below is from a recent post about a recently discovered source that describes women in computing from the 1960’s, back when women were considered better programmers than men. The rhetoric about women being more “sensitive” reminds me of Karen Ashcraft’s plenary talk at NCWIT which I highly recommend (see link here). The story about the Miss USA winner who became a computer programmer is particularly striking.
The Bodony story is not an isolated incident. The book is full of stories from women, and in fact includes an entire chapter devoted to women in computing (“The Equal Sex”). Seligsohn goes so far as to suggest that female programmers are not only equal in ability to men, but superior:
Given a complex customer problem, a female analyst/programmer will often handle the problem better than would her male colleagues with equivalent experience and ability. Not because businessmen are more lenient or show favoritism toward the female of the species, but because the female is often more sensitive to the nuances of a problem and to the complex interpersonal relations that may be part of the problem. In a very real sense, every computer problem with a customer is also a customer relations problem, and this is where feminine tact, insight, and intuition, combining with solid programming and analytical ability, can really pay off for the girl programmer.
Terrific insight from my colleague Charles Isbell. Since school rankings matter so much in faculty hiring, you only have to change things at a few schools to change the field. We could broaden participation in CS PhD’s much more easily than you might think.
Professor Charles Isbell of Georgia Tech delivered an “aha moment” for me. More than 60 percent of the faculty at the top 4, 10, 20, and 25 computer science programs are graduates of one of these same programs. The ranking of one’s PhD institution is a huge factor in hiring—departments hire at their own rank or higher. This is common knowledge, but Charles connected it to diversity. If the very top programs would make a truly concerted effort to increase the participation of women and minorities in PhD programs, the effect would propagate throughout the entire computer science field. Only a few people, those who lead and serve on the PhD admissions committees, can make it happen.
I posted a few weeks about our two Georgia Tech papers at the first ever RESPECT conference (post on Miranda Parker’s paper and post on Barbara Ericson’s paper). The conference itself was great — I expect to see a lot more good things coming out of that conference. (The papers should show up in the IEEE Xplore library soon.)
What I liked about RESPECT was that the focus just on broadening participation in computing issues allowed for greater depth and nuance than at ICER or SIGCSE. The first paper of the day was Representation of Women in Postsecondary Computing 1990-2013: Disciplines, Institutional, and Individual Characteristics Matter by Stuart Zweben and Betsy Bizot. They dove into the differences between women in Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering vs. Software Engineering vs… They all have a depressing downward trend — except for one. Interdisciplinary degrees (like our Computational Media major) are the ones in which representation of women is increasing. (The slide they presented with this graphic was easier to read than the one in the paper, but my picture of the slide is less clear.)
I also found fascinating the paper by Hodari, Ong, Ko, and Smith, Enabling Courage: Agentic Strategies of Women of Color in Computing. They pointed out differences in the experiences of women of color. I was quite surprised at how different they are. (The below graph isn’t in the paper, so you’ll have to make do with my picture of the slide.) That relatively flat red line at the bottom is the percentage of Hispanic or Latina Females in computer science. I found the flatness of that line encouraging. In the last few years, we’ve had a massive rise in enrollment. The fact that the Hispanic/Latina women line is pretty steady means that we must have had a commensurate rise in the numbers of Hispanic/Latina women in CS.
There were a bunch of short papers and lightning talks that left me wanting more detail — which is exactly what they’re supposed to do. The paper Encouraging Online Contributions in Underrepresented Populations by Nacu, Martin, Sandherr, and Pinkard got me thinking about the importance of co-design (involving the target student populations involved in the creation of the classes, like the participatory design methods that Betsy DiSalvo uses) to get buy-in and to insure that the interventions are culturally appropriate.
The RESPECT panels didn’t work as well for me — and I admit to being on one of the two panels. They were more like a bunch of short presentations, and went on too long with little discussion. It’s hard to get panels to work in a research conference. Everybody wants to talk about their thing. Panels work best when there is some disagreement on the panel, and the discussion can help everyone to gain a new perspective.
RESPECT was popular which led to a minor problem. The exemplary paper sessions were packed with all the RESPECT attendees and all the co-located STARS attendees who wanted to hear the great research results! They’re going to need a bigger space next year. That’s a good problem to have for a first time conference.
Nice piece about the Makerspace that Ben Shapiro helped create to draw Haitian girls into STEM. Ben’s quote is great — it’s about changing attitudes and identities, not just teaching tech.
The tools, computers and gadgets in Nedlam’s Workshop might imply that the Makerspace’s main purpose is to teach students technical skills, but that’s just one benefit it provides.
“At the heart of it, it’s not so much about any specific technology as how we can develop kids’ identity as people who can do this kind of stuff,” Shapiro said. “And how we can change the perception of teachers and administrators in the process.”
Demographically, young white males populate most Makerspaces in the United States, but Nedlam’s Workshop is used mostly by Haitian girls–recent U.S. immigrants, many of whom do not speak English fluently, and struggle with traditional classes. Nedlam’s Workshop offers an alternative mode of learning and expression.
Maria Klawe gets a lot of attention for promoting women in CS at Harvey Mudd College, but she’s the College President. Closer to the on-the-ground action is Ran Libeskind-Hadas who is the CS Department Chair there. In the post below, he lays out the argument for everyone taking CS in College.
I’m encouraged by an increasing number of innovative introductory courses that provide students with these rich experiences. And, I’m very excited to see students voting for these courses with their feet. At my institution, Harvey Mudd College, we developed a set of introductory courses that are not only required for all Harvey Mudd students but are now immensely popular among non-majors at our four sister institutions in the Claremont Colleges consortium. At a college of 800 students, we are teaching introductory computer science to all of our first-year students, regardless of their ultimate major. And, we are attracting hundreds of students each from our sister colleges in Claremont. They are literature, economics, and sociology majors – among many others. And Harvey Mudd does not have a monopoly on innovative introductory courses. A number of other institutions including the University of Washington, Harvard, and others have pioneered their own successful courses in a similar spirit.
I predict that if we did this study with CS teachers, we’d find the same result. The belief that CS is for males and not for females is deeply ingrained in the perceptions of our field. Kahneman would tell us that it’s part of our System 1 thinking (see NYTimes Book Review). What do you think teachers would draw if asked to “draw a computer scientist“? I predict that the gender bias that favors males as computer scientists would be greater for post-secondary teachers than for secondary or elementary teachers. Most secondary school CS teachers that I’ve met are sensitive to issues of gender diversity in computing, and they actively encourage their female students. Most post-secondary CS teachers with whom I’ve worked are not sensitized to issues of women in computing and have not changed how they teach to improve gender diversity (see example here).
In the study, teachers graded the math tests of 11-year-olds and, on average, the scores were lower for girls. But, when different teachers graded the same tests anonymously, the girls performed far better (out-performing the boys in many cases.)
Dr. Edith Sand, one of the researchers, told American Friends of Tel Aviv University, that the issue wasn’t overt and obvious sexism, but “unconscious discouragement.”
The study goes on to say that the gender biases held by elementary school teachers have an “asymmetric effect” on their students — the boys’ performance benefits and girls’ performance suffers based on the teacher’s biases. Boys do well because teachers believe they will, girls don’t because teachers believe they won’t.
I agree with the author of this recent NYTimes post. Women do seem to be more attracted to socially meaningful work than males. I don’t think that’s the complete solution, though. We have evidence that women are more likely to pursue studies in computer science if encouraged (see Joanne Cohoon’s work) and if they feel a sense of “belonging” with the department (see our work in Georgia). If we want more women in engineering, we have to think about recruitment (as this article does) and retention (as other work does).
Why are there so few female engineers? Many reasons have been offered: workplace sexism, a lack of female role models, stereotypes regarding women’s innate technical incompetency, the difficulties of combining tech careers with motherhood. Proposed fixes include mentor programs, student support groups and targeted recruitment efforts. Initiatives have begun at universities and corporations, including Intel’s recent $300 million diversity commitment.
But maybe one solution is much simpler, and already obvious. An experience here at the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, suggests that if the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves. That applies not only to computer engineering but also to more traditional, equally male-dominated fields like mechanical and chemical engineering.