Computing

Keeping women out of Computer Science

Whilst browsing idly through my Twitter feed the other day, I came across the following re-tweet:

I almost mindlessly re-tweeted it myself, but then I stopped to think. By singling out “being female” as the reason for some unspecified poor treatment, it would imply that the people dishing out this treatment are men. This is a fairly huge accusation – are men really on some kind of weird power trip to try to sabotage women in Computing, or is this all a big misinterpretation? Perhaps the reason girls are not at all keen on studying Computing is because men are deliberately shutting them out? This seemed ridiculous, so I wanted to investigate further.

What’s the problem?
I’m sure many of us ladies have experienced a “tennis ball meeting” – the same thing has even happened to Dame Wendy Hall (via @loobey41)! It is best summed up by this short clip of the ‘Fast Show’, where a woman says something, the men totally ignore her, and then shortly afterwards they pass off her ideas as their own to much praise and acclaim from the other men. I’ve never been a fan of feminism (I’m more a fan of “whoever-does-it-the-best-ism”), but I have to admit that on those occasions it is very tempting to rationalise this behaviour to yourself as “they’re treating me like that because I’m female”.

Why are girls so put off?
How many little girls do you know who aspire to be a Computer Scientist when they grow up? Surely there must be thousands of girls drooling over a poster of Dennis Ritchie on their bedroom wall and wishing to grow up faster so they can show the world how intelligent and logical they are at implementing well designed software solutions. Not.

Whether they realise it or not, girls by and large inherently conform to society’s expectations and their own genetic programming – attract a mate and look after children. I can feel some people about to scream “but I’m a modern woman, I don’t think like that, I have a successful career!” – I thought that too. Then I realised the first sentence I wrote in this section about girls drooling over men on posters was a prime example of me unconsciously perpetuating the stereotyping we’ve been subjected to since we were born. Dayumn, this stuff is pervasive.

You may choose to interpret the tennis ball story as the intelligent capable woman being seen by the men as a threat which must be contained. Even if you disagree, I’ll bet that if I asked you to describe the woman, ‘desirable’ would be fairly low down on your list. So why would any girl wish to study a “traditionally male” subject where achievement and intelligence is perceived as a threat, and she is actually decreasing her desirability amongst her peers? For a teenage girl – yes even the shy geeky ones – being singled out as obviously ‘different’, and not in an attractive way, is a Very Bad Thing.

Look even more closely and you will see more subtle barriers for girls – I remember buying my first “Sega Zone” magazine (aged 9) because it had a Sonic the Hedgehog guide – only to find it also contained various photographs of semi-naked ladies and assorted lad jokes. I was only 9 but I got the message loud and clear – this stuff isn’t for you. Would a tech company stand at a trade show be more effective if it boasted multiple female CS professors endorsing their product, or some scantily clad clueless booth babes? I think you know the answer. May as well put up signs saying ‘intelligent girls, keep out’.

So do men really have an evil exclusionary plan?
In a word, no. Some of the male dominated culture is inadvertently making girls feel uncomfortable and excluded, but I don’t think it is deliberate. It is unhelpful for females to assume that it is, but it is also unhelpful of men who are in a position to help to pretend it isn’t happening.

It’s perfectly possible for girls to succeed in Computer Science, but perhaps they have to make more sacrifices to get there than the guys. I have loved computers since I was four years old, and yet I could not face admitting to my parents (or myself) that this was what I wanted to study at university. I dutifully filled in my UCAS application for Law – because that was what intelligent girls were supposed to do – sent it off, received my offers – and then declined them all and got the place of my dreams studying CS through clearing. (Note: I do not recommend this as a strategy!)

To get more girls into Computing, we need to get more girls into Computing – vicious circle. Perhaps we should start by raising the profile of Computer Science as a ‘real subject’ to the general populace. I went to our leavers’ ball last week, someone’s partner found out I had a Computer Science degree and promptly asked me to fix his iPhone – because obviously that’s why I went to university for 3 years, to be your tech skivvy. (Even male academics get this kind of “will you fix my computer” nonsense!) I don’t think women want separate pink websites, girl encouragement programmes and “feminist” initiatives, they just want to be a valued and appreciated part of what the guys are doing.

But then, what would a woman know about it?

(Asus booth babe gaffe from http://crave.cnet.co.uk/gadgets/confessions-of-a-former-booth-babe-50008278/)

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4 thoughts on “Keeping women out of Computer Science

  1. I’m afraid that “whoever-does-it-the-best-ism” only works when everybody is a fan. Until that time feminism is needed to correct the assumption that the “best” will always be male.

    John

    The Fawcett Society’s take on these issues is well worth looking at (www.fawcett.org.uk)

  2. And see the current situation with women bishops for yet another example. Sorry, getting down off (hobby) horse!

  3. I’m a male software developer and would like to see a more diverse mix of personalities (male and female) but i do find it (irrationally) irritating when women are either acting dumb or have such low self confidence that they only put a half-baked attempted to contribute their ideas.

    An example for you, the ladies in HR quite often propose good ways of solving technical problems (this relates to a training program I support that they use) but in such a way it seems like they have dismissed it before they have finished speaking and if one is distracted the idea is gone.

    The problem isn’t just in IT its in almost every career where empathy is considered a nice to have.

    Last but not least in this wee rant, women don’t need to be smart to be nice to look at but to enjoy spending time with being smart and confidant is all you need.

    My first language is C# and I find the English language inadequate to effectively express myself so please read the above with the most positive outcome you can find.

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