Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gals And Computers

A reader sent me a link to a piece about Mattel's online poll concerning the next occupation for the Barbie doll (yes, the thing with two mile long legs, no hips and breasts the size of aircraft carriers). The results:

Mattel recently conducted an online poll asking girls everywhere to choose Barbie's next occupation from the following choices — surgeon, architect, news anchor, environmentalist and computer engineer.

The overwhelming choice among the girls was news anchor. But adults in the blogosphere, on Twitter and Facebook launched their own campaign for computer engineer Barbie.

Mattel relented and decided to go with both, news anchor and computer engineer Barbie. "We couldn't ignore the outcry," said Michelle Chidoni, a spokeswoman for the company.

The Barbie brouhaha points to a key conundrum today when it comes to women and professions in science and technology. Many people see a need for more females in so-called STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math). But fewer and fewer young women seem to be gravitating to such jobs, thanks in part to the geek factor.

That the girls picked a news anchor shows the importance of seeing women in various occupations. There are no female computer engineers on the television sets the children watch. These results also reminded me of the fact that when children pick among, say, ideal occupations they certainly pay attention to the social acceptability of a particular occupation for them.

This means that public-executioner-Barbie would get very few votes, naturally, but it also means that occupations which are not viewed with approval for women in general will not get as many votes. Children have radars about this.

To return to women and computer science, the field has an odd history. Go back thirty years and you find a much higher percentage of women taking computer science in undergraduate education! Then the percentages drop, very fast, until suddenly computer science has become the field the evo-psychos quote when arguing that women just naturally and biologically do not like numbers or abstract thinking in general.

Except for that odd history. If the dislike was that natural there shouldn't have been a different time. But there was:

Twenty-five years ago, more young women in colleges and universities were drawn to computer science than today. From 1971 to 1983, incoming freshman women who declared an intention to major in computer science jumped eightfold, to 4 percent from about 0.5 percent.

Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, recalls the mid-1980s, when women made up 40 percent of the students who majored in management computer systems, the second most popular major on campus. But soon after, the number of students majoring in the program had fallen about 75 percent, reflecting a nationwide trend, and the number of women fell even more. "I asked at a department meeting," he says, " 'Where have the women gone?' It wasn't clear." His theory is that young women earlier had felt comfortable pursing the major because the male subculture of action gaming had yet to appear.


Globe review shows that the proportion of women among bachelor's degree recipients in computer science peaked at 37 percent in 1985 and then went on the decline. Women have comprised about 28 percent of computer science bachelor's degree recipients in the last few years, and in the elite confines of research universities, only 17 percent of graduates are women. (The percentage of women among PhD recipients has grown, but still languishes at around 20 percent.)

And (though the most recent number here looks out of the pattern to me):

And in 2008, women earned only 18 percent of computer science degrees, compared to 37 percent in 1985.

This is all extremely curious. What I really should have done for this piece is to research what those women who got degrees in computer science in the 1980s did with them. Do they work in the field? If not, what is the reason? But I don't have time for that.

Still, I think the Geek Hypothesis has some truth in it. The field turned into geekdom so very fast and the stereotype of a geek is a guy, living in a sub-basement with other geeks and delivered pizza and coming out only during the hours of the night. Note that I like geeks a lot and do not agree to these stereotypes. But they are out there, and I have seen men employ them in a defensive manner, not necessarily to keep women out but with that effect. For instance, reading posts about how geeks get all the girls with big tits does tend to make a female reader feel as if she might never be allowed into that basement except the way the pizza is allowed in. Likewise, many of the geek sites are pretty sexist in their comments.

All this ties even more to something which is underplayed when people discuss women and the sciences:

To be the only woman in the room is bloody hard. I have done it enough to know. You get to be a) yourself (if lucky), b) the person that makes locker-room discussions impossible because of your very presence (as those discussions will be about boobs and how they are like pizza) and c) all womankind, used as a sounding board to what Women Think as well as the thing to attack when a girlfriend has pissed someone off or the thing to console someone for the same.

Then add to that even one woman-hater in the room! The other guys can be nice and neutral and still the whole atmosphere will be polluted for you. The solution is to get those critical coalitions of women into that room. About 30% will do it, in most cases. Once you have that level, the gender of the few women stops mattering and they become just your average geeks.

The newest article I linked to doesn't talk about this much, if at all. It talks about the framing of an occupation in male terms and tries to re-frame it in terms which would appeal to more women. And of course such a re-framing is needed! After all, much of computer science is exactly like languages and girls are supposed to do so well in them that they never shut up!

Mmm. Perhaps I should end this post here.