the male weirdness of computer science

ELLEN SPERTUS, a graduate student at M.I.T., wondered why the computer camp she had attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. female? She published a 124-page paper, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, that catalogued different cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field. The year was 1991.

Computer science has changed considerably since then. Now, there are even fewer women entering the field. (RANDALL STROSS Published: November 15, 2008 New York Times)

When I was a CS Department Chairman (worst job EVER), they sent me to some junket in Utah where there was a seminar on this very topic and it was clear that nobody had any idea (there was a guy who claimed it was because math was too hard for girls, but I don’t know if he survived the meeting). I think it’s a combination of two things game/geek culture and the isolated cubicle job prospect. Well, of three things, game/geek culture, isolated cubicle jobs, and the “science/engineering” envy that has permeated US Computer Science departments. Those and maybe too many Monty Python references.

When I was teaching intro CS, it was a shock to see how ugly and weirdly competitive the classroom environment had become – not at all like when I was taking intro courses or starting to work in the industry. The students with some computer background, 100% male, seemed bent on trying to intimidate the others with their (mostly pointless or incorrect) knowledge. I can’t express how different this was from the distant past when I took CS intro courses in the highly enlightened precincts of the U. of Arkansas (FORTRAN on punch cards!) and the University of South Carolina. In those days, sitting in on an engineering class was an unpleasant excursion into an exclusively male enclave and very different from CS classes.

And who wants to sit in a cubicle farm, cranking away for the benefit of “the stockholders” with a bunch of hypercompetitive but not very nice people? One of the criticisms we got at FSMLabs at one time from potential investors was that we were running “a lifestyle business”. And we’d go to The Valley and see all those companies where there were game rooms and even one, which I will not identify, where the startup CEO and his employees would gather round amps and play Louie-Louie in between rounds of pizza and coke and coding furiously.  Not that working in an even larger cubicle farm in a non-start-up seems much better. Why is it that engineering/CS companies are so dedicated to making the work time of their employees so horrible? And why should programming be a back office function anyways?

Finally, returning the the University, the decline of women in CS started at around the same time that the field came under heavy pressure to “professionalize” in the Universities. There were people who insisted that CS become a regular engineering discipline and there were people who wanted CS to be a particularly tiresome branch of mathematical logic, and, worst of all, there were people who wanted CS to be devoted to learning how to use whatever applications and tools were currently popular in industry. I mean, given the choice, what rational person would pick 4 semesters of J2EE over something like understanding how mitochondria work?  CS is an enormously fascinating subject that touches all areas of how people work and think and how the world works, but CS education seems often to be devoted to obscuring that.

Of course, I’m operating on anecdotal information and I’m not a woman so I may be completely off.


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