Tuesday, February 27, 2007

World View, Bubble Burst

I sometimes think I'll get tired of saying this: "Larry Summers was a fool."

But I doubt it.

Larry Summers, a person in a seat of power saying idiotic things. Larry Summers, an economist, a Harvard President, trying to say intelligent things in a public forum about subjects he knows nothing about; biological gender differences, cultural influence on education, and women in the workforce.

What's astonishing to me is that he said these things three years after Maria Charles and Karen Bradley published a paper in 2002 called, "Equal but Separate? A Cross-National Study of Sex Segregation in Higher Education" Their cross-national study of male overrepresentation in Computer Science starkly demonstrates the huge cultural influence on a woman choosing a field. The degree of male overrepresentation in the Czech Republic is three times that of Turkey, the country with the most gender-integrated computer science program.

Hey Lar, where's your world view?

But what infuriates me most of all about this blowhard is that he has daughters. What is he teaching them?

There are women in my department who went to undergrad in some of the countries where they report that CS is "about 50-50." A friend of mine from Kuwait still hasn't adjusted to the severe male overrepresentation in our department. She said, "In Kuwait, CS is a desk job. Women do desk jobs." Another fried of mine, from Israel, hadn't noticed the US gender disparity until I mentioned it to her yesterday. She was asking me advice about selecting a PhD program after she graduates with her Masters degree, and I mentioned CMU as the current leader for diverse academic culture in computer science with regards to gender.

"It's about 10 percent here," I said.
"Really? I thought it was higher?"

With so many women in her group, and so many women in her undergraduate program, the gender problem had not presented itself to her. In a way, I felt sorry that I had burst her bubble. I wish I could take it back.

My own bubble burst at the age of 26. It was the year I came to graduate school. Until then, I knew that there weren't that many women in engineering and computer science, but I chalked it up to, "Well, we're just catching up after the feminist revolution. It's only been...50 years." Despite evidence from the other fields that had been male dominated were now more equal, like family medicine, pyschology, and biology, I held firmly to that idea. I had been the only girl in my electrical engineering class. The only woman in my product group. One of four women on the plane to San Jose for the Embedded Systems Conference. But everyone had always been nice and supportive. I had friends and mentors. I had the support structure I needed to be successful. I worked in fun programs for girls in science to do my part to boost the numbers, to give back. The gender disparity hadn't really punched me in the face yet. Not like it has in graduate school. Again. and again.

My hope for now is that I can return to a place where those support structures exist. Where the diverse contributions of many are appreciated, and folks are generally just nice.

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