February 26, 2008

Some Thoughts on Women and Computing

Filed under: CS,geek,women and CS — by Penelope Stowe @ 8:54

About a week ago I went to a talk by Maria Klawe, the current president of Harvey Mudd College, on Women and Computing. This made me wish I’d been listening to Lugradio years ago so that I could have gone to LugRadio Live UK 2006 and see the BOF on Women in Open Source so I had something to compare it to/think about it in relation with.

Dr. Klawe’s talk focused somewhat on the differences in how women and men use computers and why, but was also very much focused on getting more women into computing. Considering that part of her audience was from a women’s college, in some ways she was preaching to the converted, however, it also, I think, may have given the faculty present a better idea of how to work with students and how to recruit more. Part of the reasoning that there is a problem is that the numbers of women in computer science programs in the US is going down. According to a NY Times article that came out over the weekend from 2000-2005 the number of incoming undergrad women choosing CS majors declined by 70%.

One thing that both the NY Times article and Dr. Klawe did recognize was that these are only representative of those going into CS specific programs. It doesn’t take into account women who self-teach. However, it is still an issue. They also very much pointed out that women use computers differently than men. The NYT article discussed how teenage girls are actually spending more time online than teenage boys, but that they’re doing different things as far as creating content. While a teenage boy might be writing a computer game, girls are doing graphics, blogging, and doing other similar things which while they involve the computer are not as inherently stereotyped as being geeky.

The real point of Dr. Klawe’s talk was that boys are more aggressive than girls (whether this is nature or nurture, she really doesn’t care) and male geeks have a culture that women are reticent to join. As a result, women tend to drop out of CS courses even if they are doing as well or better than their main counterparts. To be fair, as far as the aggressive parts of things went, she had hard data that backed her up. Where she really only had anecdotal data was in her discussion of stereotypical geek culture.

One thing she did was go around the room asking random people (and one not so random person) why they thought women weren’t staying in CS courses or maybe weren’t even starting them to begin with. All except one person she asked was male. The sole female was also the one that seemed to be less random. This student mentioned the perception that computer geeks, especially the guys, seem to code 24/7 and that they don’t do things that don’t involve computers and that women tend to want more of a life than that. In presenting solutions to getting more women involved in computing, Dr. Klawes made a comment about how some of the techniques (things like pairs programming and group projects which require human interaction) might help teach the guys social skills as well as help give the girls confidence. And that particular line actually kinda bothered me.

I’m most definitely female (in case it wasn’t obvious from the above) and I’ve been hanging out with male computer geeks for close to 10 years. I’m not particularly geeky (at least not with regards to computers), but I’ve never had a problem feeling left out. I also have to say that I don’t necessarily think that having their own specific culture that is in some ways not social is a bad thing. And I do have to say that I think it’s very social, just not in a normative way. I do think that anyone who suggests that to be good at computers you have to be the person who spends all their awake time coding is wrong, but I’m not positive that I see it as being a bad thing either. Many people I know essentially live for their job/studies doing it many more hours a day than is required. I suppose this could be a function of people I know rather than the general population, but I think it’s more common that expected. Also, most geeks I know socialize, just do it online rather than directly face to face the majority of the time and they do get out (the attendence at events such as LRL is proof, so is the number of geeks I know who seem to be out at least once a week at a bar/pub with their other geek friends). Since one of the places that teenage girls outdo teenage boys online is blogging and other social networking, one cannot criticize online socialization as separating the boys from the girls in this case.

I guess my point is that, yes, definitely, there needs to be more women in CS. I am in some ways sad that I didn’t decide to do more with it myself, despite the fact that I’m really struggling in the one CS class I’m currently taking. While there do need to be more women in CS, I do wonder if it’s absolutely necessary to completely erase/change geek culture or whether there are more specific ways to change things to make it more welcoming/possible for women. I guess I just have a problem making value judgments about what is “good” vs. “bad” in terms of socialization.

Create a free website or blog at