Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Women in CS: the dance remix version

pjm at the blog Flashes of Panic has a really interesting post up today about the shortage of women in CS. The post is partially a response to a recent Boston Globe article on the subject and partially a response to an earlier post of his. It's definitely worth reading.

One of the most interesting aspects of pjm's post is that he is speaking from the perspective of an non-stereotypical CS male: someone that's not a hard-core geek in the traditional sense. And as a result, his points and concerns echo some of the concerns I hear from my female students. And this is something I've noticed as well: some non-stereotypical males have an equally hard time fitting into the CS culture, and fight to come to terms with that. The culture hurts everyone, not just women and minorities.

I want to highlight a few things from pjm's post:
[pjm]There’s no room for [turning off interested students] because it’s not just about computers. It’s about what computers can do for everything else. It’s about sequencing the genome; it’s about streamlining business processes. It’s about changing the way we share information.

A friend of mine, who teaches at a liberal arts school, makes the same point: Computer Science is *the* quintessential modern Liberal Art, because it touches on so many other fields. Want to be a scientist? You increasingly need to know how to program a computer. How about a policymaker? You need to understand technology (in an ideal world) before you can start legislating it. And so on. This, I believe, is how the CS field needs to position itself for the future: not as a means in and of itself, not as a neat collection of technical trivia, but as the key to innovation in many other fields. CS needs to position itself so that everyone understands its relevance to almost all aspects of life today: work, leisure, culture, etc. And frankly, so far it's doing a pretty poor job of that--witness the declining number of majors in most programs, even though it's becoming more important than ever to be technically literate.

The other aspect of this is that even though those of us in the CS-related fields need to embrace this message and move forward with it, we still don't value it. I think of the students that are held up as "models" around here, or the ones we discuss the most, and nine times out of ten they are the ones who, well, look and act like stereotypical computer scientists. They know a lot of arcane technical stuff. They are not well-rounded. They live and breathe CS. We ignore the ones who are utilizing CS in many interesting ways: the double CS/Music majors, the political science concentrators, the English majors that show up in our upper-level electives. Until we start practicing what we should be preaching, the culture will not change substantially.

[pjm]I didn’t do CS as an undergraduate...and didn’t get back to it for years, because I got weeded out. I don’t blame my school or my professors; I didn’t have the desire, and I didn’t want to bother catching up with “all the boys who already knew everything.” .... I want a field that’s more friendly to women because that also means a field that’s more friendly to me...

You know what? I do blame pjm's school and his professors. Because by doing nothing to dispel the kind of environment that drove him away---the "everyone else knows more than I do" environment---they are part of the problem. That said, now that I'm on the other side of the desk, I know how hard, how very hard, it is to fight this sort of (very false) attitude. There's only so much you can do to create the kind of comfortable environment where everyone can learn the material---you can't be in the lab 24/7, and your words only go so far to dispel what's sometimes deeply ingrained. I've had some of my brightest, most talented students---men and women---tell me with a straight face that they "can't do" computer science because "they don't know as much as everyone else". Even though they're the ones getting the A's and doing the most creative work in my course, while the ones who supposedly know it all are handing in the crappy assignments and barely squeezing by. Guess who's more likely to go on? The field suffers when we remain silent, when professors and TAs stand by and do nothing to rein in the loudmouths.

Anyway, go check out the original post(s)!


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Thanks - this is a great post. I have to say that one of my best students this semester was a CS major, and not in the kind of stereotypical "I live-eat-breath-sleep code" kind of way (at my last job, the lab where CS students did most of their work was called The Dungeon, the CS students basically lived there, ordered in pizza, didn't sleep or bathe, etc. etc. - it was the visible "face" of CS, even though the profs there were, I know, very "liberal arts" in their approach. It's amazing how pervasive that culture is, even to someone like me who's never taken a CS course).

post-doc said...

Wow - it's so great to see someone step back and consider the culture. I served on committees for the medical school while completing my PhD, so I've put some thought into similar issues. But at the same time, I've mentioned before that I'm one of the first people to say I can't program very well. I'm too slow, it's hard for me, and I don't fit in with people who I consider to be pretty gifted in this area. However, I see exactly where CS fits into my field - we'd be absolutely lost without it. And yet I don't take classes that could greatly improve my productivity because I'm embarrassed by my lack of skill. Reading some of your posts encourages me to find my place in CS since it's so vital to my research. So thanks again - I so enjoy reading what you're thinking here.

Turtle said...

Great post!!

If someone had said this to me in high school or as an undergrad, I definitely would've majored in C.S. (and Gender Studies).

Anonymous said...


I am quite new to your blog and after reading some of your posts I get the feeling you don't like the traditional method of teaching CS. I do not feel the same way though. Shouldn't the person who eats, sleeps and breathes a certain subject be rewarded more? Shouldn't a course stress a person's endurance as well as intellect? I've always felt disapointed when professors slow down and thus not teach the entire stated curriculum to accomodate as many people possible. This will surely devalue someone else's education.

One would almost think you are teaching in a non-American school. Rare is it to find an American who turns in brilliant work and gets A's and all the while have an inferiority complex regarding that subject.

Your comment about CS being the quintessential Liberal Art reverberates quite true. I remember reading something very similar in IEEE Computer Magazine back in '01/'02. The author was saying programming is an art rather than something with complex rules say like engineering. Of course that goes down a road with many counterpoints. In it's truest essence there are no rules in programming much like abstract art.

Finally I hope that you are able to push equality throughout your professorship. There are countless ways that professors influence students.

As always take care,

Scooter said...

In your post, you cited an article which said, "The author was saying programming is an art rather than something with complex rules say like engineering." I feel the need to disagree - as a former engineering student (who graduated with a degree in history), while rules limit the possible solutions in engineering, and factors like cost matter a lot, there can be many solutions, some elegant (in engineer-speak, my definition: a simple and clear solution meeting all criteria, and perhaps satisfying the soul along with the accountant and engineering review board), others brutish, that will answer a problem. The place I suspect we'll agree is the result - the more elegant solutions are always better - the math is easier for the engineers, the cost is kept low AND the user either sees the art (or on small items, it becomes invisible because it is so intuitive).

Jane said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! SV, unfortunately the impostor complex *is* that strong in CS, strong enough to make talented women and men who don't "fit the mold" question their place in it. Also, I do understand your point about the need for rigor within CS---and I agree that the CS curriculum does need a fair bit of rigor in it---but rigor does not have to equal soul-sucking, demoralizing pedagogy. :) You can teach the whole curriculum in a meaningful and interesting way, in a way that makes the subject interesting and relevant to a wider range of people. And *that's* the point I'm trying to make---we CS profs don't do that as much as we should, but we *need* to if we truly want to change the culture and make CS more inclusive.

academic coach said...

Just got to say that I am sooo glad you went into this field that is so short of good women and so glad that you write thoughtful blog posts like these.

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Writer Chica said...

Knowing plenty of 'stereotypical computer scientists' and being fairly geeky myself, it seems to me that the CS culture is largely a culture that started with and continues to draw people with Asperger's Syndrome or people with strong Asperger's tendencies. It's not far-fetched to say that for those 'hard-core geeks', computer culture is one of the few (perhaps, only) places ever in their life that they have been accepted and feel that they fit in.
Certainly a more comfortable, inclusive environment is needed for a broader range of people to learn CS material. I hope that can be done with some compassionate understanding of the culture itself (including Asperger's characteristics) and without compromising how the geeks interact and learn.