Greetings all! It’s a hot summer here in the Seattle area. We went on
a family getaway this last weekend and I got a chance to do some reading. I
finally got a chance to finish “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing” by Jane
Margolis & Allan Fisher. This is a really good, and useful book. The
authors came to MSFT to talk a while back, but I wasn’t able to attend, so I picked
up the book instead.
The book discusses reasons why there is a disproportionately low number of women in
techcnial computing jobs (programming, testing, etc.). This is a persistent,
and persistently embarrassing, issue for both US college computer science departments
and the US software industry (but this is by no means a problem specific to the US).
Now, the thing I can’t stand with most discussions around this subject is that they
usually amount to political and social hand-waving with no actual facts, beyond anecdotes,
to offer guidance. This book is different, much different. Margolis
& Fisher did an extremely detailed analysis of undergrads in the CS department
of Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top CS schools in the country. They
did tons and tons of interviews with students, examined admissions data, and offered
educated interpretation of what they found. In reading the book you really get
the impression that they approached the problem as scientists: letting the data to
drive their conclusions, not vice versa.
One thing the book establishes, which is pretty obvious but worth pointing out
anyway, is that all data points toward men & women having equal ability &
potential in computer science (and in math & the sciences in general). However,
the book does point out, with significant supporting data and references, that men
& women do have some genuine differences in how they approach problems and in
what motivates them to pursue an activity.
This fact is one of the keys to the problem of the shortage of women in CS.
To sum it up very briefly, the problem is that the prevailing “hacker culture” in
the computer science field reflects the ways that males tend to approach computing
and relate to each other. It does not, however, at all reflect the way in which
women tend to approach computing and their peers, and thus the ordinary ways that
the male-dominated college CS departments and male-dominated industry tend to operate
can be alienating to women. Note that there’s no “conspiracy” afoot here, it’s
just a natural outgrowth of how the CS culture has developed.
One of the really interesting observations in the book is how many women from other
countries often have more success than one would expect, considering that many of
them come from backgrounds where they had very little exprerience with computers (whereas
many incoming CS undergrads at Cargenie Mellon are already very experienced with computers).
One of the possible reasons for this, they suggest, is that in many East Asian cultures
success is viewed as merely a matter of effort, and failure presumably from a lack
of effort. This is in contrast to Western cultures, where people often
view success or failure as a matter of talent, luck, or “the system” rather than one’s
own effort. Thus a young woman coming from somewhere like Thailand who’s
determined to become successful in CS may have an advantage in that she’ll focus on
her own effort and be less likely to internalize the message that CS is for men, and
that any struggles she faces have primarly to do with her gender or “the system”.
There are also many suggestions in the book for how to avoid making an environment
unfriendly to women. Most of these are relatively unobtrusive changes, like not
equating a single-minded, intimate obsession with computers (a common male “hacker”
trait) with talent for and interesting in computing, making CS assignments relate
to people and usability, etc.
I highly recommend this book. The data it presents is deep and wide, the arguments
made are well supported, the conclusions are practical, and the perspective is balanced.