OPINION

Women: IT Needs You – Men: Get Over It

I was idly scanning a press release in my inbox the other day stating that the National Academy of Sciences planned to honor 17 individuals in 2010 for their “extraordinary scientific achievements in the areas of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy and psychology.”

Five of the recipients were women. I remembered having read about Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace as a child, and knowing that women have played a seminal role in computer science, I wondered why we don’t see too many women anymore among the ranks of computer scientists? Certainly we have female CEOs like Meg Whitman, who headed eBay and grew it into an enormous business; Carol Bartz, who now heads Yahoo and was formerly CEO of AutoDesk; Patricia Gallup, CEO of PC Connection; and Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox.

These are individuals who would be considered extraordinary regardless of their gender — but where are the female computer whizzes or scientists, and why aren’t they often quoted in the media for their expertise? Are they reluctant to stand out because they don’t want to paint bulls-eyes on their backs? Or don’t they exist?

Are women under-represented in the sciences, particularly in computer science, which I have an interest in as I write about high-tech? Or are they simply a very small minority in the fields of math and science?

The Facts, Just the Facts

A conversation with Rolf Lehming, program director for the science and engineering indicators program at the National Science Foundation, turned up some interesting statistics. In 1993, 45 percent of bachelors’ degree holders in science and engineering were women. That grew to 50 percent by 2000, after which it flattened out.

Women made up 42 percent of students enrolled in graduate courses in science and engineering in 1993, and 50 percent in 2006. In the late 1990s, 36 percent of master’s degree holders in science and engineering were women. That went up to 46 percent by 2007.

In 1993, women held 32 percent of the doctorate degrees in science and engineering. That went up to 47 percent in 2007.

However, despite this nearly equal representation in academic settings, fewer women are apparently working in the computer field now. The proportion of women with bachelors’ degrees working in the computer field fell from 35 percent in the early to mid-’70s to 27 percent between 2000 and 2005.

Why is this? Are girls less math-savvy? Hardly likely. Many of the pioneers in the field of computing were women.

Force-Fitting Females Into a Mold

Are women less interested in science? Not at first: The National Science Foundation says girls and boys are equally interested in science while in elementary school.

However, by the second grade, gender stereotyping often kicks in, and when boys and girls are asked to draw a picture of a scientist, they portray an isolated person with a beaker or test tube. Generally, the pictures portray a man; when they do show a woman, she looks grim. By the eighth grade, girls are turned off enough that they constitute half the number of boys interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Girls are further burdened by the bias science and math teachers have toward male students, as documented by the National Science Foundation. Stereotyping and the attendant behaviors — “Aw, you’re a girl, you can’t do math” — can strongly influence anyone, certainly a child. Diminishing, ignoring, laughing at, mocking or other discounting behaviors all add up to create a loser, say Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward in their book Born to Win: Transactional Analysis With Gestalt Experiments. Losers act out in various ways, including avoiding the source of their discomfort.

Gender stereotyping and discounting behavior reduce girls’ interest and their belief about their abilities in math and science, the Institute of Education Sciences states in a practice guide it issued to encourage girls in maths and sciences. Since children’s beliefs about their abilities help determine their interest and performance in various subjects of study, girls are often, in effect, conditioned to avoid math and science.

Beating Up the Idiots

Those girls who nonetheless persist and graduate with degrees in science and math sometimes continue to face gender discrimination as women in academics and the workplace. “Every self-respecting man knows that women are no good with machinery,” writes Cynthia Cockburn in her essay “Caught in the Wheels: The High Cost of Being a Female Cog in the Male Machinery of Engineering.”

Leaving idiocy aside, perhaps women are being left out of the technical fields by design. The social context around the workplace is masculine, Cockburn argues. So when women take jobs in the engineering or technology sectors, they have to adopt a more combative, aggressive, masculine approach, she says.

Women also have to deal with gender stereotyping and discounting behaviors, as was shown during a keynote by Canonical Founder Mark Shuttleworth at LinuxCon in October of 2009. In addition to consistently describing Linux contributors as “guys,” he made a pun about ejaculation and a comment about “explaining to girls what we actually do.” The episode ignighted further debate about sexism in the Linux community and the computer science field overall.

Many mea culpas flowed forth from male bloggers and commenters on the incident, at least one of which can be summed up like this: “We men are idiots, geeks are bigger idiots, live with it and don’t beat us up for our idiocy. And besides, Mark’s right, most people, especially women, don’t care to know anything about tech jobs.”

That’s all well and good, but why should anyone live with it? Why shouldn’t the idiots learn how to behave?

“Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens,” Friedrich von Schiller once said. In English, that translates into “Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain.”


TechNewsWorld writer Richard Adhikari loves technology but is concerned about its effect on society as a whole. His gods include Blish, Tiptree and Heinlein.

1 Comment

  • Observation: How many women post on IT forums with ‘male’ or gender neutral user names?

    I have identified quite a few. I believe many feel their comments and advice will be taken more seriously if it seems to come from a male. And there is the unfortunate fact that females on-line attract sexually biased or charged comments that men never seem to have to deal with especially when offering comments on a contentious subject.

    Anecdote 1: My older daughter has a Bachelor’s degree with a dual major of English Literature and Primary Education. She has over 15 years experience as a teacher and as an academic adviser for a large university. She completed her MBA a few years ago with a 4.0 average and an excellence award for her thesis which was then used as a model for a reorganization of her department. Her job performance evaluations are consistently outstanding and she has been given performance raises each of her last 3 reviews while her peers were living with wage freezes.

    She was recently up for a job within the university to replace her manager who had been promoted. Her manager encouraged her to apply and the HR folks explained how her 4 years experience in her current job when combined with the university’s desire and policy of promoting from within would make her a very strong contender if not a shoo in.

    When the university filled the position with a male from another university with less than one year of experience in academic counseling she was told they figured with a 4 year old she wouldn’t be able to commute an additional 12 miles to work. (She had stated in the interview that she had already made child care arrangements including her husband getting his work shift changed to minimize the time in day care.)

    I can’t imagine a male candidate being excluded for for this same logic.

    Anecdote 2: My younger daughter has her mechanical engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon and her Masters in Bioengineering from Trinity College (Ireland)plus 12 years experience with Intel managing production equipment installations. She left Intel to get her Master’s and then was hired by a medical devices company to work in product development.

    She found out a year later that she had been hired at a full grade level below the other 4 (male) engineers hired at the same time. None of them had a Master’s nor a fraction of the experience (two were recent graduates).

    She did get a hiring bonus which brought her first year’s pay up to nearly what she would have earned in the higher grade level, but she remains a year behind her ‘class’ for promotions. Oh, by the way she was the winner of the company’s engineering excellence of the year award.

    When she asked why she was hired at the lower level her supervisors stated "You did tell us that one reason for leaving Intel was to get away from chemical exposure before having children."

    (Intel had offered her several other jobs away from the chemical exposure, but they were all ‘paper pushing’ as opposed to ‘hands on’ engineering leading to her decision to seek other work even though it paid roughly 60% of what she had been earning at Intel.)

    Conclusion: Women have many reasons to operate in ‘stealth’ mode in the workplace which don’t apply to their male counterparts.

    And many of those same reasons are often considerations in avoiding testosterone rich environments.

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