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.