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gender and computer science

Jon had a good post a couple of days ago titled gender, personality, and social software, based on a column of his at InfoWorld: is social software just another men's group?. He makes some interesting points in both.

There is part of that thread that I wanted to comment on (but didn't get around to doing it until now for some reason!), and it's the question of how much computer science is "gender biased." Towards men, of course.

Having spent a good part of the last 10 years in academic institutions one way or another in various countries and continents (as well as in companies of all sizes), here are my impressions. This is of course, just what I've observed.

That there are few women in computer science is obviously true. Surveys or not, you can see it and feel it. That said, I have noted that something similar happens in other disciplines, such as civil engineering. In the basic sciences, there are more men than women in Physics for example, but the difference is not as marked. In Chemistry, or Biology, the differences largely disappear.

One thing I can say, from experience, is this: of my groups of students, both here in Ireland and in the US, an interesting thing happened: even though there are fewer women (much fewer) than men, the number of women that are very good is roughly similar to the number of men that are very good. (Hacker types, the "take no showers or bathroom breaks until I finish coding this M-Tree algorithm using Scheme, just for the fun of it" have been invariably men in my experience, and generally there has been, if any, one of those at most per class, but I have no doubt that there are women like this, I just haven't met them. :)) Note that I'm referring specifically to computer hacking (in the good sense) here--I know women with the same attitude toward their work, just not computer hacking :).

To elaborate a bit on the point of the last paragraph, if, say you have a CS class of 40 people, maybe 5 at most would be women. But of those five women, two would be very good. And there would be maybe three, at most four good computer-scientists-in-brewing on the boys' side.

My conclusion after all this time is that there's a difference of quality over quantity. In some weird way, talent for computer science seems to me to be constant regardless of gender (maybe this is the case for everything?). There might be more men doing development, sure, but there are also more that are not very good at it (or do it for the wrong reasons, such as money, or parent's pressure, or just "because"; in my opinion, if you don't really like doing something, you shouldn't be doing it, period.)

The other thing I've noticed in recent years is that, as software (and hardware) have become more oriented towards art, social and real-world interactions (The stuff done at the Media Lab is a good example), I've seen more women on that side of the fence. In fact, in some of these areas women dominate the landscape.

Now, I don't want to get carried away on speculating on the reasons for this split since they would almost certainly be hand-waving of the nth order. I will say however that I think that sexism (which I despise--for example I enjoy James Bond movies but the blatant misogynism in them gives me the creeps--, and, btw, if you want to know how serious I am in using the word "despise" here, you can read this to see what I think about semantics in our world today) has to be partly a factor here. But I'm sure there are others, and history plays a part too. Consider that we're still using UIs and sometimes tools that have very clear roots twenty, sometimes thirty or even forty (!) years ago (e.g., LISP, or COBOL, or Mainframes). Back then gender-based prejudices were even worse, and it's reasonable to assume that we're still carrying that burden in indirect fashion.

So maybe it's not a surprise that now that we're working on technologies that had its start ten or fifteen years ago women are getting more into it? Maybe. I sure hope so.

What do others think? Women's opinions are especially welcome. And if any of this sounds ridiculous (I'm under no illusion that what I've said here is completely accurate), please feel free to whack me in the head. I'm taking painkillers for a horrible pain in the neck I have, so it won't hurt too much. :-)

Categories: science,
Posted by diego on February 19 2004 at 11:01 AM

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