November 16, 2008

Where have all the women gone?

Category: Academic,Geekitude,Gender,Hackers,Politics — Biella @ 5:54 am

Today, the NYT has an interesting piece on the declining numbers of women in the field of computer science. Ultimately the article presents a bleak picture but does not give a firm sense of why this is so (I think because it is so hard to answer).

I do agree that if girls are not hopping on the computer at a young age and are not using it as a tool for production (they do use it a social tool), they are always going to have trouble catching up to men. Many CS majors, not to mention most hackers, develop quite intimate relations with the computer from a young age and thus have a level of comfort and expertise they have is nothing short of astonishing. If women are not developing that expertise as children but only much later in life, there will always be two classes of citizens in computing. Men, in other words, are native speakers, while women learn computing as a second language.

The comment I agree with less is the following:

Ms. Cassell identifies another explanation for the drop in interest, which is linked to the pejorative figure of the “nerd” or “geek.” She said that this school of thought was: “Girls and young women don’t want to be that person.”

It seems to be that in fact in the 80s and prior to that, the only word in town to describe computer folks were nerds. But geek arose to take its place and in part to take away the pejorative sting. Geek is cool. Nerd is not. And geek is now associated with all sorts of computer cultures in a way that it was not before. So it seems to be that more than ever, there is a positive geeky association with computing so in fact this would open the doors to more people than before.


  1. Interresting, but your link is broken (bad copy past I think ^^).

    I knew that there was not nearly enought womeen in IT, but the fact that the number is declining is worrying, I hope we can fix that.

    Comment by tshirtman — November 16, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  2. Opps. Reminder: drink coffee before blogging. Thanks Thomas!

    I agree. I find this pretty disturbing as well.


    Comment by Biella — November 16, 2008 @ 7:33 am

  3. The social status is an obvious answer, but it lacks a sufficient answer to the question “Why does ‘nerd’ label aversion affect girls more than boys?”

    There’s a project to glamorize Engineering and CS to women, but I suppose one of the romantic appeals to the image is that nerds dispense with base surface attraction and find inner structure and beauty. Architects concern themselves with whether a building looks good; Engineers concern themselves with something they feel more important — whether the design it will kill people or not.

    Comment by jldugger — November 17, 2008 @ 8:12 am

  4. The contrary answer is women are sufficiently smart to be able to discern it’s not the best career.

    The question then, is why do men persist pursuing this career?

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — November 18, 2008 @ 10:31 am

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