ELLEN SPERTUS, a graduate student at M.I.T., wondered why the computer camp she had attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. female? She published a 124-page paper, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, that catalogued different cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field. The year was 1991.Now, wait a minute. You can't compare the average of all the fields to the number in one particular field, then assert that the one field stands out from all the others -- or even "almost" all the others. The numbers that make up that average could be all over the place, with many lows balanced by highs. They could be drastically skewed by the inclusion of some science field that is unusually attractive to women -- or unattractive to men. I wish the NYT would link to the NSF surveys so I could see for myself what is inside that 51%. Also, unstated, is the fact that more women than men receive bachelor's degrees these days. What percentage of female college graduates major in science and engineering, and what percentage of male college graduates major in science and engineering?
Computer science has changed considerably since then. Now, there are even fewer women entering the field. Why this is so remains a matter of dispute.
What’s particularly puzzling is that the explanations for under-representation of women that were assembled back in 1991 applied to all technical fields. Yet women have achieved broad parity with men in almost every other technical pursuit. When all science and engineering fields are considered, the percentage of bachelor’s degree recipients who are women has improved to 51 percent in 2004-5 from 39 percent in 1984-85, according to National Science Foundation surveys.
When one looks at computer science in particular, however, the proportion of women has been falling....
Anyway, the failure of women to enter computer science is especially interesting if it is true that it's the only field -- or "almost" the only field -- that women have shunned as they pour into the rest of science and engineering, but I'm not convinced it's true. If it is, though, maybe it's a bit puzzling. One professor, we read, theorizes that in the past "young women earlier had felt comfortable pursing the major because the male subculture of action gaming had yet to appear." So there's this idea that the key to getting more women to enter the field is to entice young girls to play computer games. Indeed, there was a "girls game movement," but it's already failed.
There are other theories too: women who like computers prefer to do website design, women are more sensitive about being regarded as nerds, etc. These theories already contain the belief that women's interests differ from men's. That being the case, why not just say that fewer women are interested in computer science? Presumably, the answer is that because the percentage of women in computer science has been falling over the years, it probably doesn't reflect an innate gender difference. If it's something out there in the culture, then, supposedly, it's something that can -- and should -- be manipulated.
I think there are at least 3 shaky assumptions in the previous 2 sentences but I won't lengthen this post by belaboring them.
I'll lengthen this post by pointing to the news that Barack Obama might appoint Larry Summers as Secretary of the Treasury, and some women are displeased:
A controversial comment at a Cambridge conference may cost former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers a second stint in the Cabinet.....How much does the work of the Secretary of the Treasury have to do with getting the implications of gender-based wage disparities? And does NOW really get the implications of gender-based wage disparities or does it simply invoke them to get attention and try to appear relevant and powerful? Is there some innate gender difference that makes women want to stand between the new President and the man who might be the best person for what is a phenomenally important job?
In 2005, [Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] walked out of an academic conference after Summers, the keynote speaker and the president of Harvard University at the time, said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.....
And now women’s groups have expressed so much outrage over Summers’ possible appointment that, according to top Democratic sources, his name may even have been stricken from the short list....
Just after Obama won, National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy told the Huffington Post she had “mixed feelings” about Summers, saying he doesn’t “get” the economic implications of gender-based wage disparities.
The New Agenda, a nonpartisan women’s rights group, issued a press release, saying Summers’ “record of derogatory comments aimed at women ensures that his selection would be divisive and thus distract from efforts to fix the economy.”
IN THE COMMENTS: Joan writes:
I read the article yesterday when I saw the headline -- couldn't resist. I graduated from MIT and worked for 15 years as a software developer. I did not major in computer science. My informed opinions on why fewer women are choosing computer science:
1. You can easily work in computer science fields without a computer science degree. The joke at MIT back in the late '80s was it didn't matter what you majored in, we'd all end up writing software anyway. It was true for about 80% of the people in my living group, at least for portions of their professional careers.
2. As far as choosing CS as a career, the field is dominated by people (both men and women) with stunted emotional and social maturity. High-school level drama in the workplace is wearing and unpleasant.
3. The work is challenging and can be really fun. It can also be a real grind, and the cyclical nature of new product releases means you have to work overtime for extended periods every year. The pay is good, and that is one form of compensation. But the work itself is ephemeral, and this is the key to why I don't work in software anymore: If I kill myself to get this release out, the software will be used for 6 months, maybe a year, until the next release. It never ends, and there's no perceptible benefit. Aren't you tired of the new versions of your favorite software continuously appearing, laden with feature-bloat and a host of new problems?
I'm teaching now because I get a sense of fulfillment, and because it works with my own children's schedules. The money is horrifically bad compared to what I was making as a project lead at Oracle, but money is not my only concern.
Regarding Larry Summers, he was right when he talked about the innate differences between men and women -- women self-select into professions they enjoy, just as men do, and those who deny this are insufferable. I stopped donating money to MIT after the Nancy Hopkins incident. They should have repudiated her, and instead she was lauded. I'm disgusted by how PC my alma mater has become over the years, and question the quality of the education kids are getting there, if they have idiots like Nancy Hopkins on staff.