Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bea Arthur Wrasslin'

Preparing for a computer science education conference. Reading papers about gender, pipelines, and psychoanalytic feminism.

These stereotypes did not lessen with age, as high school students expressed the same impressions. One high-school student described technology workers as "smart...They've got to be kind of nerdy," and added, "I'm not that type of person...They don't do anything. They don't talk on the telephone...they don't want to do anything by's not a good life." Her description paints a picture of an antisocial person, who is single minded in his or her focus on work. By distancing herself from "that type of person," this student is creating a barrier between herself and people who have careers in technology.

Here's the thing. This high school girl, wherever she is, isn't too far off the mark from where I'm sitting. And yes, I'm sitting in front of a computer. I do work all the time, I do focus on work like my dog focuses on cat turds, and I actually do hate talking on the phone.

I admit, I don't sit in front of the computer EVERY day. I have finally restructured my schedule so I don't sit in front of the computer every day. Fridays are what I call my "face day." I have a lot of really productive meetings on Fridays in which I get to work with other people. On Saturdays, I take off a half-day (maybe the whole thing if I'm particularly mentally unbalanced), but then I start working at the computer again on Sunday.

So, do I live this way because I want to, or because the computing culture at my department forces me to? If this high school girl is so right on the mark, do I really feel like telling her that computer science is for girls, too? And not just girls. Can I honestly say, without lying through my diet coke stained teeth, to a roomful of extroverted people who want to work on teams and do interesting work without sitting in front of a computer all the time, that computer science is for THEM too?

I have no answer. I just go back and forth. Some days I just feel like a genderless machine. Other days, I feel I don't belong here. Other days, I'm ready to burn down the school if that's what it will take to get some attention on the issue of diversity in computer science.

All this back and forth, and I feel like Bea Arthur wrasslin' a velociraptor.


Jane said...

You are so right on with this post. What we really have in this field is a big chicken-egg problem. We *want* the field to be a certain way (inclusive, boisterous, joyful), but in order to do that we have to change the culture to not be reclusive, single-minded, and perceived-to-be-boring, which means we have to attract people who are not reclusive and single-minded, etc. It's always hard for the transition generation--those who come in under the "old" system and change it for the better. And I think grad school is particularly difficult, because it is in some respects such a solitary venture, and in a sense *requires* single-mindedness. I'm not saying life's always better once you leave grad school, but there are places where the culture is at least a bit more social---and that does help a bit.

I think we *should* advertise CS the way we *want* it to be, and then do our level best to mentor those young women like crazy when they get to our doorsteps. It's not perfect, but it's a start.

Laura said...

I didn't think that way when I was in junior high. C.S. for me then was all about working as a team. We were all in a room, none of us knew anything about programming and we all just did our best. No C.S. in high school and college? Well, going to a liberal arts school didn't help. I mean, my class was taught by my second cousin (seriously). It was C.S. for non-C.S. majors and we spent a lot of time talking about hardware. Gah.

I think some of the female students I work with who are interested in C.S. are actually thrown off by the perceive lack of creativity. They've been drawn to the multimedia program for example, but then when I encourage them to take C.S. courses where they can take their skills to the next level--doing database development or creating their own web applications--they often are intimidated by the "structured" nature of intro courses and decide to just learn on their own.

That said, I have had some girls go on to do C.S. and even go to grad school and likewise have had C.S. students join our program and learn about doing group projects and working for a "customer" and dealing with non-techie people.

Just some thoughts. . . .

DC said...

As a bitter job searcher, I feel I must suggest that you may be doing these women a disservice by recruiting them into a field that is rapidly shrinking within the US. There will always be government jobs that can't be outsourced. There will always be system administrator jobs that require someone to be able to physically turn a device on or off. Other than that, I haven't seen much to reassure me.

Laura said...

I think there's still plenty of opportunities for research jobs. Hands-on jobs may be shrinking. I think the downturn in technology jobs is a reflection of the current economy. Ten years from now, I think you're going to need some C.S. researchers.