I wrote this paper for a class for my major using several sources as cited below. Please read and share.
Amalia Hertel 3-10-15
About two-thirds of the way through the term, my roommate, Alex Reddington, and I came into our Software Development and Professional Practice class and discovered that some of our male classmates were sitting in the seats we had consistently occupied ourselves since the first week of class. Nothing had been said. Nothing was said. We found new seats. From our first day as Computer Science students at the small liberal arts college we attend, this is how it has been: we have been silently and effectively pushed out of our seats, out of conversations, and out of the community, being quietly ostracized and ignored by the students who surround us. It is my theory that this kind of experience is what is making the numbers of female computer scientists keep dropping over time.
According to data from the National Science Foundation, 2,363,000 people are employed as Computer/Information Scientists in the US. Of those people, 566,000 are women, or approximately 24 percent. Dropbox posted information about its diversity, admitting that only 12.8 percent of its tech employees are female. At both Google and LinkedIn, only 17 percent of tech employees are women. Pinterest fares a little better, with 21 percent of tech employees being female, and Twitter is the worst off, as it employs only 10 percent female tech workers. For all of these companies, the total percentage of female employees including non-tech and leadership positions, was consistently equal to or below 40 percent. All of these numbers seem considerably low for such successful companies. Logically, these disparities in diversity must come about for one of two reasons: either companies do not want to hire women, or there are not women for them to hire.
Research makes it pretty clear that it is unlikely that companies are not avoiding hiring women. In an article from the Communications of the ACM titled “The Difference Engine,” Phillip Armour discusses the need for diversity in the workplace. He claims that “the best problem solvers tend to operate in similar ways, so there is little benefit in having more than one of them. Diverse thinkers, however, may see the same problem from different perspectives and can create more optimal hybrid solutions out of these viewpoints.” Armour then describes a study he conducted where a group of engineering executives and managers were tested on their abilities to perform deductive reasoning problems individually and in groups. Besides the resulting evidence that teams outperform individuals, Armour discovered that the one team outperformed all the others, and achieved a near perfect score, was the one team that did not consist entirely of engineering managers, but also included non-technical staff. Armour concludes that getting ideas from different viewpoints is advantageous, even if those ideas come from people with less education on the topic at hand. He warns, however, that “while getting the ideas is a good thing but actually using those viewpoints to create solutions is a better thing. This does, however, require acceptance and understanding of different perspectives.”
Although Armour’s article focuses on diversity in terms of employees who have different backgrounds, it certainly still applies to diversity in terms of gender. Armour discusses how different people have different ways of thinking, and different ways of solving problems. According to a 2013 article from The Atlantic, there are actually physical differences between the brains of men and of women. Different genders engage different parts of the brain while doing tasks: women are more likely to use multiple parts of the brain, while men are more likely to over-engage just one part of the their brains. The article’s author, Olga Khazan, claims that “This could mean, for example, that men tend to see issues and resolve them directly, due to the strong connections between the “perception” and “action” areas of their brains, while women might be more inclined to combine logic and intuition when solving a problem.” Beyond just having different educational and societal backgrounds, women actually do think differently than men.
Another article, from inc.com, also provides insight into the benefits of diversity in the workplace. The author, Lauren Leader-Chivee, claims that serial innovation comes from diversity. She writes:
Simply by being women, people of color, gay, or of a different nationality, age group, or socioeconomic background, their insights help identify and address new market opportunities that others may not even see. CTI research shows that teams with at least one member who brings an innate understanding of the “points of pain” (unmet needs) of the target market (consumer/client), the entire team is as much as 158 percent more likely to understand that target. That in turn increases the likelihood that the team will innovate effectively for the end-user with the unmet needs. Given the radically changing demographics of American and global consumers, this end-user understanding is more critical than ever.
Essentially, Leader-Chivee is arguing that the best way to understand a customer is to have had similar experiences as them, and she follows by providing evidence to prove as much. With poor gender diversity in the workplace, tech companies are unlikely to be able to understand the needs of their customers.
With a copious amount of evidence towards the benefits of diversity in the workplace, it’s extremely unlikely that tech companies don’t want to have female employees. It appears to be much more plausible that there simply aren’t women for these companies to hire. Data regarding the recipients of undergraduate degrees in computer science make it pretty clear that however much tech companies may want to hire women, they simply don’t have many options.
According to data from the National Science Foundation, 47,960 students received undergraduate degrees in computer science in 2012. Of these students, only 18.2% were female. According to data from the 2013 Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey, 14.2% of the bachelors degrees awarded went to women. In a New York Times article by Randall Stross from 2008 these same data sources are used to show that while there used to be a gender gap in all science and engineering fields, almost all the fields have caught up, while computer science still lags behind. Though these two studies do have different statistical results, it is still clear that there are very few graduating with computer science degrees, which would clearly contribute to the lack of women in the professional world.
While the data I found was very clear that very few women receive degrees in computer science, it isn’t very clear why. A possible option is that young women who are interested in the field are becoming discouraged. Another option is that it never occurs to young women that computer science is even an option for them. In my opinion, both of these options are not only plausible, but correct.
There is no significant data in how many women considered majoring in or majored in computer science, but dropped out or changed their major. And, obviously, there is no data about the number of female students who would have liked computer science but never considered it as a possibility for them, though I imagine the number is significant. However, if we assume that these theories are correct, there is plenty of evidence as to why women would feel negative about computer science.
Stross’s New York Times article discusses the drop in female computer science majors, and considers some different theories as to why young women are not interested in becoming computer scientists. One theory is from a professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Jonathan Kane. Kane believes that the influence of the male subculture of action gaming as a possible cause, as there is a significant lack of video games geared toward girls. For his article, Stross also quotes writings by Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology & Social Behavior. Cassell claims that, despite various efforts, “the girls game movement failed to dislodge the sense among both boys and girls that computers were ‘boys’ toys’ and that true girls didn’t play with computers.” Some concerned parties, Cassell continues, still believe that the solution to the problem of female computer science graduates is to build the right game.
Cassell also mentions another possible cause for girls’ lack of interest in computer science: nerds. She suggests that as nerd and geek are pejorative terms, girls do not want to identify themselves as such.
I personally think that both of these suggestions have merit, but do not stand on their own as reasons for the disparity between genders in the field. In my opinion, what turns young women away from computer science is a feeling of “otherness” caused by the men in the field. Regardless of whether girls are playing video games or not, the male subculture of action gaming will still be an issue. If young women feel like outsiders in the world of technology, they are not going to try to break into that world. In addition, many girls now self-identify as “nerdy” and enjoy science and engineering, so it is unlikely that they are avoiding those terms, though it is possible that they are avoiding the boys who also self-identify in that manner.
What appears to be the biggest problem, according to various articles and personal blog posts across the internet, is that young women studying and working in computer science fields are lonely. In a post on her personal blog, game designer Whitney Hills writes that “As a woman working in games since 2007, I’ve felt hurt, discouraged, and isolated by various forms of discrimination.” She later continues, “You feel lonely, you feel like a novelty, you feel like a fraud,” and explains:
Over the years, other people’s words and actions pile onto your shoulders. You feel enormous pressure to pretend that nothing bothers you, because you don’t want to give others more power to hurt you, or upset people you care about or make them feel uncomfortable.
So you don’t say anything, you try to ignore it, and the result is an ever-present sense of isolation that chills your enthusiasm and makes you defensive.
You feel that the things that hurt you would never have happened if you weren’t female, and on a certain level, you feel that you deserve it.
Hills is, essentially, expressing that women in computer science feel pressure to prove themselves to the men in field, and that over time this pressure breaks them down, leaving them feeling lonely, invisible, and stupid, and worst of all, as though they deserve to feel that way.
In an article on Fast Company Labs in response to Hills’ post, Ciara Byrne discusses her own issues in the development world. She begins her article: “It’s the loneliness that I remember most. More than the joy of cracking a problem, the satisfaction of getting a tricky piece of code to run, of releasing version 1.0 of a product, of closing a million Euro deal by shipping on time, it’s that feeling of isolation that I associate with my time of working in development teams, and of managing them.” Later Byrne adds “It’s tiring always being first, always being different, always being the one who has to adapt, denying important parts of yourself just to get the chance to do your job. It’s like being a stranger in a strange land, where you speak the language but nobody learns yours. That’s why even women who do well in development end up leaving mid-career.”
In my short time as a student of computer science, I can fully agree with the statements by both these women. I knew I wanted to go into computer science since before I started college, but during the first term of my second year I began seriously researching other options. The computer science course I was taking was my first 200-level class, but it was of a difficulty level beyond the prerequisites, and I was one of a very small number of girls in the class. I felt under pressure to prove that I was just as talented as any of the boys in our class, but at a disadvantage for being one of the only second-years in the room. It seemed as though everyone else in the class knew what was going on, as I was the only one who consistently had questions about the material. I felt like an idiot for having to constantly ask questions, while everyone else seemed to automatically “get it.” Even worse, the professor refused to give direct answers to most of the questions, making me feel like even more of an idiot for not understanding what was going on.
To make it worse, although it was a discussion based class, not once throughout the entire term did a male student speak to me during class. Well, one did—the guy who sat in front of me would hush Alex and me whenever we tried to ask each other questions or explain to each other what was going on. He would sit there and stare straight ahead, not looking at us, and shush loudly, although he himself frequently chatted with the student next to him during the professor’s lectures. This type of response from the other students and professor, such as refusing to look us in the eye or speak to us directly, was an intensely dehumanizing and invalidating experience.
I survived that class thanks only to my father, who has taught computer science courses at several colleges, and who provided lectures kindly and patiently over the phone until I understood the material enough to teach it to Alex. What stopped me from dropping my major, however, was a day during homecoming when several alumni sat in on our class. When I got lost about 10 minutes into class, I told Alex that I had no idea what was going on. The alumnus overheard and immediately turned and started explaining the topic to me. It was the first time in that class when someone had actively taken an interest in helping me to learn, and it gave me hope that maybe the rest of the computer science world was not as dehumanizing as this one class had been. At least one person, regardless of the fact that they had already graduated, had treated me as though I had a right to be in that classroom learning that topic, a vibe I certainly never got from my professor or classmates.
Growing up with a father in computer science, I’ve always gotten along with the nerdy type of guy just fine. They might be shy or awkward, but they aren’t usually rude or mean. I was confused for a long time as to why the male computer science students at my college just weren’t very nice. During my research for this paper, however, I came across a term that captured the whole problem in one word: Brogrammers. As defined on urban dictionary, a brogrammer is “A programmer who breaks the usual expectations of quiet nerdiness and opts instead for the usual trappings of a frat-boy: popped collars, bad beer, and calling everybody ‘bro.’” The defining word here is “frat-boy,” and it is echoed across the internet. In an article for The New Economy, Rita Lobo writes “Silicon Valley has morphed into a fraternity house of sorts: parties, alcohol, drugs and women, all for the enjoyment of the soon-to-be tech millionaires who roam the streets of Palo Alto,” and in an article about the lack of female computer scientists on The Atlantic, Jordan Weissman wrote “it seems pretty plain that culture—the way society at large still treats tech as a male bastion, and the often nerd-frat hybrid culture of the field itself—plays a role.” Meanwhile, Serena Larson writes in an article on readwrite.com that an obstacle to women in computer science “is the growth of the “brogrammer”—a shorthand term for a macho, just-out-of-the-dorm-room culture that’s being imported from college campuses to startup offices.”
In a study for the University of Maryland, Diana O’Leary describes some reasons she believes women feel uncomfortable in undergraduate computer science. Some reasons she cites include reduced access to study groups, programming projects designed for male interests, and hostile attitudes from male students. Since she wrote the study in 1999, brogramming culture has been on the rise, causing these issues to become even greater. While nerds and geeks tend to be too shy or awkward to include women in their study groups, brogrammers are intentionally exclusive, and since brogrammers over-present a macho attitude, they appear very hostile toward female students.
O’Leary’s other suggestion, that programming projects are designed for male interests, is not directly influenced by brogrammer culture. However, a lack of support from other students could make this issue even worse, because female students who are struggling would be made to feel more alone. A study by Carnegie Mellon University found that women value the context and connections of computing, viewing computers as a tool they can utilize to achieve an end, while men consider computers toys and value the computer itself. In my experience in college, my first four computer classes all featured projects and assignments that did little in terms of being functional. We were largely instructed to create games, a type of assignment that works at an advantage for males, who view computers as toys, but discourage females, who find the tasks pointless and the challenge disheartening. Computer science came to life for me in my first 300-level class when we created a pre-enrollment tool for the whole school, because for the first time I felt as though I were actually doing something. Since beginning computer science classes work with the strengths of male students, female students feel at a disadvantage.
It is likely that many female computer science students actually are at a disadvantage. According to data from the College Board, the administrators of the Advanced Placement program, 39,278 students took the Advanced Placement exam for computer science in 2014, and 7,864 of those students were female. Though the statistics from the Advanced Placement exams are not in any way scientific, the gender disparity in the data is great enough that even with a large margin of error, it is very likely that collegiate women are beginning their studies in computer science well behind many of their male classmates. This knowledge gap likely makes them feel incompetent, and students who feel incompetent or subpar in an area of study are unlikely going to want to continue after their first term.
This feeling of incompetence appears to have quite a large impact, according Larson’s article on readwrite.com. Larson writes about Harvey Mudd College, a private liberal arts college that chose to split its intro level computer science class into three different tracks, and sorted students into the tracks based on their prior experience and knowledge of the field. Larson explains that “the course is now broken down into beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels, so each student can study and learn from peers with similar experiences, and not be overwhelmed by students who have been coding since they were in elementary school. By addressing each level individually, it prevents students with no programming experience from being deterred from the field by competing with experts.” Whether this is the strategy that is making the difference or not, 40% of the computer science students at Harvey Mudd College are female, according to Larson’s article, which is a huge leap compared to other colleges, and its probable that their improved intro-level course is a large part of the cause.
It is unfortunate that female computer science students are made to feel worthless and incompetent, as it’s clear that they have extreme worth in bringing diverse perspectives to the workplace. While female students continue to be disregarded and their strengths devalued by their classmates and professors, the percentage of degrees awarded to female students will remain low. While so few women graduate with computer science degrees, companies will remain unable to hire a significant number of female tech workers. And while companies fail to hire female computer scientists, they will suffer from the lack of diversity and neurodiversity on their teams. Meanwhile, as similar trends of exclusion and devaluation persist in the work environment, many of the female employees whom companies are able to hire will become discouraged over time, and may leave in search of other work.
While it is possible for many women to overcome these issues and pursue fulfilling careers in computer science, many more women are not going to bother trying, especially while there are equally rewarding and less isolating careers available in other fields. Thus if any real change is to be seen in the gender disparity of computer science, it is going to have to come from the men, and particularly those in any sort of position of power. Professors and the heads of professional teams will have to lead by example, focusing on validating questions and cracking down on exclusive brogramming culture, and overcompensating for their peers and coworkers who do not take the issues of gender discrimination seriously. While this may seem like a heavy task, all it takes is one alumni on homecoming day, one positive conversation with a professor, one rewarding interview with or tour of a company, and women will begin to feel welcome in the computer science world.
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