How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science?


73 Responses to “How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science?”

  1. Jewell Anderson says:

    Oh thank you! The headline came up in my feed, when I saw the full post w/ punchline I was TREMENDOUSLY RELIEVED.

  2. Sweeny says:

    This is really fun. My only question is why she used a statistic that is over 20 years old to illustrate the fiction of ‘gender differences in mathematical differences’. Wouldn’t a more recent statistic give an even more accurate demonstration of this fiction?

    • Peter Erwin says:

      Wouldn’t a more recent statistic give an even more accurate demonstration of this fiction?

      Why, yes, it would. This meta-analysis from 2009 notes that the nominal gender difference between boys and girls in the US has now vanished. From the abstract:
      “… contemporary data indicate that girls in the U.S. have reached parity with boys in mathematics performance, a pattern that is found in some other nations as well.”

  3. Ethan Richman says:

    Slight differences in mathematical aptitude are not necessarily the only statistically significant biological differences between men and women that are relevant to Computer Science. How does the author of this slideshow conclude that biological differences do not account for gender differences in computer science after only looking at one type of aptitude? Furthermore, the author herself points out that you only need moderate math skills to code; shouldn’t that suggest an examination of non-mathematical aptitudes as a more relevant inquiry?

  4. Jordan Pez says:

    I guess it would be rude of me to point out that CS actually requires more logic than math, and this particular argument loses its logic around the part that “biology explaining few women in CS” is conflated with “biology of MATH explaining few women in CS”

    As if biology == biology IN MATH.

    Hint: It doesn’t.

    Biology explaining few women in CS could be due to any number of factors.  Perhaps since CS is primarily logic based then the biological difference is actually in respect to logic.  But this would imply that Terri, being a female, is not very good at logic.  But that couldn’t be because her stated argument is very logica….

    Oh… right.

    (Note:  this poster does not actually think women are innately worse at logic.  It was merely a chimera to make the point.)

    • Daniel says:

      If you bother to major in math it becomes pretty obvious that what you think of as “math” in high school is not actually math.  What IS actually math is…logic.  Only logic.  The distinction you’re trying to draw between math and logic is nonsense.  Math is all logic.

      And for the record, as a math major who took a fair amount of computer science I never thought of CS as anything but a particular branch of mathematics.  This is very obvious in a computation theory class but it’s true even in intro and data structures classes.

  5. Jason Kautz says:

    i’m a sysadmin and i’m horrible with math. i never understood what correlation people believe there is between doing math and working with computers. perhaps there’s some imagined link between the two because of the stereotype of the nerd in high school who is a whiz with computers and always knew the answer to math problems.

  6. David Bolton says:

    When I was a student, 30 years ago, there were lots of women studying computer science – far more than studying engineering (my discipline).  But when the videogame-playing kids reached student age – the number of girls going into computing just crashed.

  7. schmittenhammer says:

    I have been a machinist for 40 years, I have joked, I have no answer.  I am in the Northeast section of Ohio and have worked for small and large machine shops.  All I have ever seen is white males as machinists.  I have even joked with the owners about only white males and they just give me a blank stare.

  8. Andrea James says:

    Sex science and race science are often used to justify injustice. People want to believe something, so the conclusions they draw in their “science” are often fundamentally biased. Go Terri Oda!

  9. cservant says:

    I thought there’s slightly more women enrolled in post secondary institutions in States.  I know for certain there *IS* slightly more women then men in the 15 to 30 age range for the general population(quick google for popln pyr):

    I suspect graph data would be a bit worse, yes?

  10. NGLGBR says:

    As a women is both good at coding and math, I fail to see the difference between logic and math….  Logic is called discrete mathematics in computer science.   It is it’s own branch of mathematics.   And as a person with both a computer science degree and a job in php web development, I have to agree that not much math is required to code, but there is certainly quite a lot of math in a Computer Science degree.  Numerical methods are not for the light or heart.

  11. Jeff Bennett says:

    A coworker of mine pointed out that one of the problems with most education is that they usually teach formal and procedural logic through math.  If you happen to be for whatever reason, biological or otherwise, disinclined to learn math, you just don’t get those skills in public schools.

  12. Indeed – I’ve read that the _majority_ of coders were originally women, and it was seen as a female profession (like, for reals, yo).

    What seems to have changed is how programming/coding is _viewed_ and, as a result, so has the gender balance.  There’s increasing evidence that, in fact, biology does not explain behavioural choices between men and women much at all: instead, it seems to be a cultural issue :)

    I’d also suggest having a read of Cordelia Fine’s excellent book ‘Delusions of Gender’ for more on the subject of women and the STEM subjects – great good fun, _and_ very, very interesting.

  13. NGLGBR says:

    I would suggest this book to all and any who are interested in this subject:
    Zeroes and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture by Sadie Plant.  It is was the motivating factor for my enrollment in a CompSci Degree.

  14. Jerril says:

    I was probably about 10 when I started entertaining becoming a programmer (along with a vet, a biologist, and “the first woman to walk on Jupiter”).  I didn’t really notice it was a mostly-male field until I went to college…
    Nobody bothered to tell me it was “for men”, and to be honest, I would have told them “OH YEAH?” and gone anyways if they had. My mother raised me to be like that :)

  15. schr0559 says:

    From (limited) experience this seems like an American thing.  Among Indian/Russian/Chinese groups of software folks I’ve worked with, there are proportionally more women.  Not quite half-and-half, but often close for a few small teams I’ve seen.

    Being a white guy I can’t speak to this directly.  I have some theories about US education and social pressures that probably aren’t right.  Then I think about some of the strange, off-putting (male) oafs I met in my first computer science labs, and wonder why anybody would want to bother.

  16. awjt says:

    Exactly. It doesn’t. The best programmers I know are ALL women.

  17. patrikd says:

    Do people seriously still say that? Seems so blindingly obvious to me that it is largely a cultural thing, not based on any “inborn” abilities.

    Then again, when I grew up in Belgium, I saw the exact opposite attitude: women were thought to be *better* suited to fields like mathematics, because male students were thought not to have the patience or discipline to put up with such a dry subject matter. Presumably based on some hand-wavy arguments about testosterone and ability to sit still in class…

    Don’t know how prevalent this view was, or if it actually led to a female gender bias in math. But I did hear it from more than one person.

  18. Moriarty says:

    Do you guys saying it’s actually women who are better and/or more numerous in other cultures basing that on actual statistics? It would be interesting to see side by side comparisons.

    Also, like others have mentioned, aptitude is not the only potential biologically influenced factor. There’s also inclination: perhaps men are simply biologically more likely to find it interesting. That may or may not be true, either, but it does seem (to me) much more likely significant as a factor than “men are better at math.”

    • Moriarty – that difference in interest is not borne out in the studies as being biological (again, I refer people to the book mentioned in my previous comment).  Inclination is as much a product of cultural norms as anything else.

      It’s also worth noting that neuroscience results are notoriously tricky to accurately analyse and, it would seem, often aren’t O_o.  Especially when it comes to gender, as it can be very different to get really good control groups (for example), or split variables away from each other.

      The situation is very different in Asian and Indian parts of the world…

  19. subhan says:

    Back in the mid/late 80s when I got my BS degree, I switched majors from CS (0-2 females in classes of 30-50 people) to Psychology (1-10 men in classes of 30-50 people).  My roommate did the same after I explained to him that I made the switch largely because I looked around the room in my CS classes & decided that this, collectively, was not the group of colleagues I wanted to spend my time with for the next 40 years. (note: Psychology takes a lot of math too, primarily statistics)

  20. bingo says:

    What a waste of time.  And it’s incorrect, assuming that everything is a normal distribution.  Most of the studies (what year was that paper from, 1990?) more recently done have shown that female quantitative scores are normally distributed but that men tend to be bimodal or dually peaked, which explains much of the chatter above–more men are clustered at the extremes.

    • bingo says:

      and, both extremes, to be explicit.  so there are a lot more mouth-breathing drool machines that are challenged by addition and also a lot more whiz-kids.

    • TaymonBeal says:

      I find that hard to believe. Do you have a source for it?

      • Tess says:

         I think he’s just quoting Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard who claimed that. 

        Here’s a good example of a study using cross-cultural data to look at math ability by sex:

        It’s pretty good.  If the differences are biological we should see them cross-nationally, but we don’t; some countries have more female mathematical prodigies than male, particularly those with more gender equality. 

        There are plenty of people mentioning a bimodal distribution of math ability for boys and men, but they’re either not citing anyone or citing a Scientific American article.  The actual distribution seems to be flatter – meaning *not* bimodal, just with a larger standard deviation than that for girls and women.  Still trying to find a good citation for that, but seriously:  do you genuinely believe that the majority of the men in the world are either math geniuses or math idiots?  No? Because that sounds ridiculous to me.  And a flatter distribution does imply that there are likely to be more men out in the tails than women – more men 3+ SD from the mean.  So the arguments people are making using the “bimodal” word still work if we assume they’re just using that word wrong.

        (An actual bimodal distribution has two peaks, which may or may not be equal in magnitude or quasi-normal.  As an example, in one of my classes, grades on any particular test or assignment follow a roughly normal curve, high in the middle and tapering off.  However, semester grades are bimodal: for students who put in some effort and do some work, there’s a peak centered on a B+ or so, and for students who don’t do much, another one, around a D-.)

        Ultimately, the differences in aptitude by sex are minor and vary cross-nationally, which should be enough to put this whole argument to bed.

    • Peter Erwin says:

      I’m not aware of any evidence that (US) men’s mathematical ability is “bimodal” (care to supply some references?). US male mathematical ability is normally distributed, with weak evidence that it has a slightly broader distribution (slightly larger variance, leading to slightly more in the tails compared to the peak) — that’s probably the source of your wildly exaggerated “dually peaked” claim.

      But –  comparisons of mathematical abilities among different nations shows that the larger variance for boys only exists in some countries; in others, there is no measurable difference (e.g., the Netherlands), and in some it’s the girls who have a broader distribution (e.g., Denmark, Indonesia). The male/female ratio at the very high end (upper 95% or upper 99% of mathematical ability), is sometimes female-dominated, and turns out to depend fairly strongly on how gender-unequal the general society is. This clearly suggests that most if not all gender differences in mathematical ability are driven by social, cultural, and economic factors, not basic human biology.

      So the claim that men are biologically more likely than women to have extremely good (and extremely bad) mathematical ability is almost certainly not justified.

    • Daniel says:

      Citations please.  I’m not being sarcastic, I’d really like to look at the studies you’re talking about.

  21. tomrigid says:

    Easiest explanation ever: fewer women than men in computer science because there are more men than women in computer science.

    Tautology aside, my point is that men and women kind of naturally segregate and separate in non-sexual endeavors, and once an imbalance occurs the imbalance is likely to stick around for awhile.

    To put it another way: CS woman goes into a class or office full of CS men and gets excluded. It’s not necessarily the men’s fault–they hang out together after work, talk about chicks and video games, while she goes home and does her nails and watches The Bachelor. But the CS men are hanging out with programmers (each other) while she probably isn’t. That’s a huge disadvantage for her, compounded over time, and it slows her progress in her chosen field.

    This is why we have affirmative action: not because some groups are dumb, but because like likes like and excludes non-like, and it takes a conscious effort to break that effect. 

    • NGLGBR says:

      How do I strongly dislike this ignorant and sexist comment.  Why is the “like” solely refering what does and does not dangle between ones legs.  Why not what actually interests the individuals, like computing!  It is boneheaded statements like the former which send women running the other direction.

      There is nothing more tedious to deal with than ignorance.

  22. Kevin Kadow says:

    Men are five times as likely as women to be diagnosed as autistic, many traits common in autism spectrum disorders are not detrimental in the field of Computer Science, or can even be considered to be an asset for programmers and some other CS specializations.

    So to the extent that Autism is biological, the low number of women with Asberger’s and other ASDs partially explains the low number of women in CS.

  23. doug117 says:

    I didn’t have time to read all the posts, so if I repeat someone I apologize.

    Computer science is not the same as writing code! In fact, very little of it is writing code. Mostly it is proving very very difficult theorems — the sort that Godel and Turing worked on and the kind of stuff that Aho and Ulman wrote about.

    Anyone can write code. Male, female, young, old.

    I would like to see statistics for the ability to prove theorems in computational linguistics or recursive function theory. To see what biology and social pressures have to do with it.

    Incidentally, at least half of the C.S. students were female when I was in school  (UMass, late ’70.) Anecdotal, and evidence of nothing, I know, but nevertheless a fact.

  24. MadLogician says:

    When I first worked in computing, back in the 70′s in the UK, programming was well-known as a female-heavy field.

  25. Geeks know this, of course. I’ve worked in IT for 15 yrs. and if I were to list the top 10 smartest and most reliable geeks I’ve known and worked with, 5 or 6 of them would be female (all but one of them are from India).

  26. theCanuck says:

    How old is this!?  I’m really sick of people using these “straw man” (or “straw woman”, if you prefer, or perhaps “straw person”) stereotypes to fight some ludicrous gender battle.  It’s the 21st century, men and women choose their career paths based on their individual desires, choices and capabilities.

    • Tess says:

      How old is this!?  I’m really sick of people using these “straw man” (or “straw woman”, if you prefer, or perhaps “straw person”) stereotypes to fight some ludicrous gender battle.  It’s the 21st century, men and women choose their career paths based on their individual desires, choices and capabilities.

      Privilege fail.

      Best example I’ve seen in a long time, actually.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Privilege fail.

        Strictly speaking, it’s privilege succeed.

        • theCanuck says:

          I guess I’ve stepped in over my head, I had to do some searching to understand what “privilige fail/privilege succeed” meant, that may prove your point, aside from demonstrating my ignorance of feminist theory.  However, what this has to do with the prevalence of women in Computer Science is beyond me, considering any individual wealthy enough to pursue a computer science degree would be of privilege.  My point is that in my own field of Biological and Medical Sciences, in my current programme, there is a greater proportion of female versus male graduate students pursuing careers, however a disproportionate number of women are represented in the faculty.  This is hard multidisciplinary science, most everyone is quite capable and demonstrates so.  A publicly available study conducted to investigate the discrepancy between numbers of female and male faculty members can be found here, .  Perhaps it paints a picture of the inherent sexist structure of Western society, but that’s a debate for another day.  I only came here to argue against the use of dull stereotypes.

          • tlwest says:

            However, what this has to do with the prevalence of women in Computer Science is beyond me, considering any individual wealthy enough to pursue a computer science degree would be of privilege.

            I’m no expert, but I’ll take a stab at it.  Let’s take your original statement.

            It’s the 21st century, men and women choose their career paths based on their individual desires, choices and capabilities.

            The sentiment echoed by your statement indicates that you are in such a position of power vis-a-vis entering CS (this is your privilege) that you cannot even conceive of barriers that would prevent or discourage someone leaving the field even if they had the appropriate desire and capability.  This is the essence of “privilege fail” – the inability to imagine what life is like for those without your privilege.

            In this case, the privilege being talked about is probably not so much wealth (which exists, but might hit men and women equally), but

            (1) being discouraged from math/CS in school by teachers
            (2) being discouraged from math/CS in school by parents
            (3) being discouraged from math/CS in school by boys
            (4) being discouraged from math/CS in school by other girls
            (5) having failures of other women in the field held against you
            (6) having your failures held against other women
            (7) being dismissed as incapable because girls can’t do “real” CS
            (8) being dismissed as incapable because you’re not a geek
            (9) having to face constant scrutiny not endured by your male peers because they can’t really believe that you are capable.
            etc., etc., etc.

            These are all things that you can argue have greater or lesser discouraging effects.  However, to casually imply that they don’t exist at all (and thus are not appropriate for discussion) is something that only someone who has never experienced them (i.e. the privileged) can do.

            I’ll go out on a limb here, and say I don’t think that most this sort of discrimination is specifically anti-women.  My observations is that it is human nature to take *any* bias in natural inclination (and often even circumstance) and turn it into “it’s this way because evolution/God made us this way”.  (Take male teachers in early childhood education as as example of discrimination going the other way.)

            However, I feel it is the responsibility of society to counteract this unfortunate human tendency. “Natural” most definitely does not mean “Desirable”.

          • theCanuck says:

            If only more people believed in assessing others as individuals based on their own merits.  Perhaps then, that the issues you describe still exist in this day and age in Western society, it is a sad truth.

          • tlwest says:

            I think the point that should be made is that it is not enough simply to not engage in these behaviors oneself (although it is a big help).  One should be mindful of the fact that such barriers do exist and actually look for and challenge those behaviors in others.  (Since a lot of these behaviors are often subtle in nature, they’re often easy to overlook if you’ve never been a target of them.)

  27. ackpht says:

    No, it’s not biological. It’s that American women are choosing other things. The question is, why?

  28. The Chemist says:

    I’m glad this finally came up on BoingBoing, I submitted it ages ago and was disappointed when it didn’t hit the blog (not that I took it personally.)


    I guess you’re right, sexism no longer exists in the Western world because you’ve never seen it.


    You shouldn’t jump that particular gun unless you know for certain what accounts for that discrepancy. Borderline autism may very well be less diagnosed in women for various other perfectly good reasons beyond biology. Considering we actually don’t know for certain what causes autism, really at all (knowing there is some genetic component is still not much to go on), you won’t be able to make that assertion with any real certainty for quite a while.

  29. Robert says:

    I had an idea the other day that is probably wrong and might sound simplistic, but hear me out… Most people tend to agree that women are more sociable and emotional than men. A decade ago the Internet was the realm of men and geeks, with very few women using it. These days the numbers have evened out. What changed in that time? Social networking is a big factor. The internet can now be used to socialise and express emotions to your friends.
    The problem is that computer science (and any kind of software development for that matter) is an inherently anti-social vocation. You spend most of your time not talking to other people and only interacting with a machine. Even other sciences have more social aspects to them (live experiments, labs, field trips, etc…). Make development/computer science sociable and I reckon more women will show interest. Make it so that women can communicate with otherwise very anti-social men, and I believe you will see more interest in it.I don’t have any scientific basis for this theory, and it’s mostly opinion. I’m just throwing it out there!

  30. forthelibrarian says:

    TechDirt has a great article that uses Terri Oda’s presentation as one piece of evidence in a larger essay on how subtle institutional biases account for the predominance of white men in tech jobs, even when no one is trying to be racist:

  31. fight4paece says:

    I think there should be a distinction made between people who can code and those that are computer scientists. I totally agree that people only need moderate math abilities to write code. It takes a computer scientist with high math ability to code a hydro-dynamics simulator. 

  32. Jim Cipriani says:

    I feel like everyone’s over thinking this one. There’s a difference between what one *can* do and what one *chooses* to do. Women have no problem learning math, science, and CS. There’s a shortage of women in comp sci, because most women *choose* to work in another field. Can you blame them? 

    Every guy I know in tech would pay in iPads to have more girl geeks around. : (

    • The Chemist says:


    • Tess says:

      I feel like everyone’s over thinking this one. There’s a difference between what one *can* do and what one *chooses* to do. Women have no problem learning math, science, and CS. There’s a shortage of women in comp sci, because most women *choose* to work in another field. Can you blame them? Every guy I know in tech would pay in iPads to have more girl geeks around. : (

      You’re over-emphasizing individual choice here, I think.  There are a lot of structural factors in play.  How do you think it feels to be a woman in tech and have the vast majority of your colleagues (straight men) exclaim over that all the time?  It ranges from “No way, you’re not a girl, girls don’t do this work” to “wow girl geeks are hot.”  Keep in mind the guys who do this aren’t trying to be jerks.  They just focus on what is, for them, an important difference.

      For women in male-dominated fields, the fact of our gender is never irrelevant.  That’s a heavy burden.  Women in male-dominated fields get fewer second chances, are more heavily scrutinized, and have a hard time feeling like part of their own occupational communities.  They work harder than men and are generally paid less.  They’re expected to be nicer than men and face harsher sanctions if they’re not.

      Given all this, who would choose to go into a profession that is likely to marginalize them or objectify them or both?  Only someone who really loves the work or is really determined not to let the bastards grind her down.

      Of course, this is off base from the point of the presentation.  Because while we could argue all day about constrained versus free choices, the presentation’s author is actually arguing against people who claim inherent differences in math ability matter.  It’s not a straw man argument, because there are plenty of (high-profile) people who have claimed just that.

  33. ernunnos says:

    Using math aptitude as a proxy for all biological differences is a straw man. Either the author didn’t realize this, or she did. So she’s either ignorant of logic, or insulting her audience. I’m not sure which is worse.

    There are, right now, millions of teen and even pre-teen boys learning basic circuits from a game called Minecraft. They do this of their own free will, with their own pocket money. They do not need outreach programs. By the time those boys get to college, they will already have a firm and intuitive grasp of several important concepts in computer science, or at least computer engineering.

    If you want to find the real reason for the disparity in employment, figure out why that disparity in entertainment exists. 

  34. David Capino says:

    maybe biologically women don’t like the idea of working with these (stereotypical guys) in the Computer Science related workplace?

  35. Steve Pan says:

    A bunch of white nerds explain the world as is with a series of bullshit “just so” stories? Well I never

  36. socialclimber says:

    From the paper containing the graph cited:

    “Averaged over all studies, the mean magnitude of the gender difference in mathematics performance was 0.20. When SAT data were excluded, d was 0.15. The positive value indicates better performance by males on the average, but the magnitude of the effect size is small. Figure 1 shows two normal distributions that are 0.15 standard deviation apart.”

    But the inclusion of the graph seems odd given that their study only ever compares the mean male and female scores. For each study the standard deviation was used to scale the difference between the male mean and female mean, but there was no attempt to compare the standard deviations of male scores to the standard deviation of female scores, let alone to examine whether the two distributions have the same shape or are even approximately normal. The trouble with a meta-analysis is that you can only meta-analyse the things that can be extracted from the studies you’re analysing, which pretty much limited this meta-analysis to means. Given that limitation, the inclusion of the graph seems over-reaching.

    The IQ distribution for males is known to be significantly non-normal. Compared to normal, there is a fat left tail due to mental retardation arising fromFragile X syndrome. It wouldn’t be surprising to find the same effect in maths ability scores.

  37. atimoshenko says:

    Surely, it is much more about interest than about ability? If one is really, really interested in doing something, one will get pretty damn good at doing it, regardless of one’s innate abilities. So we should not be looking at abilities, but at social and genetic determinants of preferences/interests.

  38. gliberty says:

    One paper? Color me a bit skeptical – but I agree that you don’t need to be very good at math to do CS. But what most of the evolutionary psychology / biology papers say is not that women can’t do math, but that they are less interested in it — which is where 90% of ability comes from: having enough interest to get good at it.
    Trust me, I’m not dissing women, nor do I think women want to go shopping – but academic types are often more interested in biology, biochemistry (check the % of women in those fields, ever since women’s lib they’ve been rising, and the new post-docs are now 75% female), the social sciences (except economics) and humanities.

    • Peter Erwin says:

      academic types are often more interested in biology, biochemistry (check the % of women in those fields, ever since women’s lib they’ve been rising, and the new post-docs are now 75% female), the social sciences (except economics) and humanities.

      The % of women in math and the physical sciences has also been rising; it just started from a lower point. For example, circa 1975 about 5% of US physics PhD degrees were awarded to women (and 10% of math PhDs); by around 1990, it was 10% (and 20% for math), and it reached 15% by 2003 (30% for mathematics).

      (Incidentally, the percentage of women getting bachelor’s degrees and PhDs in pure math is significantly higher than the percentage in computer science, which is yet another reason it’s hard to believe claims that “innate mathematical ability” explains the gender gap in computer science.)

  39. gliberty says:

    Oh, and biochemistry requires more math than CS.

  40. Jeremy Wilson says:

    I would say it’s more cultural bias in the interviewing process – white males tend to prefer to hire white males, lather rinse repeat.

    It’s biology, just not the biology she’s thinking of.

  41. onepieceman says:

    So what? 
    Unless the cause is discrimination, which would obviously be bad, it might just be that women are interested in other things, statistically speaking, which would explain their greater proportions in other disciplines. I can’t recall anyone seriously suggesting that strenuous efforts should be made to reduce the female contingent where the current proportion is above 50%. Is life only “correct” if every discipline has a precise 50/50 split?

  42. Ryan Lenethen says:

    Simple answer: Men are more logical than women.


    I did notice some people made the correct observation that while math isn’t really all the used/useful except in very specific applications, as a degree it is a heavy requirement for whatever reason.

    Second was that back in the day, their were more women than men.  I think this was likely more attributable to WWII and all the men off fighting the war, and that early programmers were more like typists, which was a women dominated field. Note most of the early design work for computers were done by men with heavy mathematical backgrounds.

    Heck IBM was first the National Cash Register Company…

  43. tlwest says:

    because I looked around the room in my CS classes & decided that this, collectively, was not the group of colleagues I wanted to spend my time with for the next 40 years.

    I think this pretty much nails much of the reason.  Then once you have an imbalance, human nature is to attribute it to biological origins, which then becomes discrimination which then cycles back to the comment quoted – sure you *can* beat the discrimination, but why bother?

    As for being “delighted to see more girl geeks”, that’s part of the problem.  The expectation that you have to be a geek to be good at programming is *exactly* the discrimination I was talking about.  Most of the female programmers I know aren’t in any way geeks and there is no reason for them to be subjected to that particular culture just because of their choice of work.

    Having said that, I am a beneficiary of such discrimination.  In many environments, that discrimination makes programming geek-heavy, which means a greater concentration of people interested in the things I am interested in.  Having worked in both geek and non-geek workplaces, it’s a sad fact that the less gender balanced environment tended to be more fun for me…

    However, as a matter of principle, I do have to approve of initiatives to allow more women who are so inclined to consider programming as a career, even at the cost of my workplace culture.

  44. masamunecyrus says:

    I don’t think hardly anybody claims that women aren’t in computer science because they’re stupid. I’d guess that women aren’t in computer science because they’re not interested in it in the same numbers as men. 

    If you think men and women are interested in the same things, and thus the number of either gender should be equal in all jobs, you’re delusional. Get back to me when you find statistics showing that equal amounts of women are interested to be construction workers and firefighters when they’re little girls as there are little boys.

  45. HateToNeedToDoThis BecauseOfYo says:

    Can BoingBoing please fix the page formatting? I sit pretty far from my monitor so I need to make text larger when reading things online. However now when I try to make text larger on BoingBoing, the ads, etc. on the right cover the images and crowd the text of the stories. In fact, the only time I can even read BoingBoing anymore is if I am on a laptop, sitting close to the screen. I actually do not know if this is bad programming or if it is just an obnoxious attempt to thrust advertisments in my face. Hopefully it is the former and can be corrected. 

  46. tomrigid says:

    “I’d guess that women aren’t in computer science because they’re not interested in it in the same numbers as men.”
    Masa, it’s not about equal representation in a given field. We don’t have a duty to split every office evenly between men and women, or by ethnic percentages, or zodiac signs.

    Our duty to each other is simply this: recognize where and how people are disadvantaged by our systems (biological, social, cultural) and try to reduce the impact of those disadvantages. Western women, or American women at least, seem to be significant disadvantage in the CS field, and as I said in an earlier comment I think this may be the result of their low numbers, which reduce their opportunities for “casual” interactions with other CS professionals.

    To the extent that men socialize with men and women with women, the gender imbalance in a given field will produce an imbalance in these casual interactions, to the detriment of the minority gender’s skill-set. Knowing this, parents, teachers, managers, and social policy professionals can make useful determinations about what, if anything, should be done to help individuals from the disadvantaged group. 

    Or we can blame the little girls who play with dolls. Yes, dolls are obviously the problem.

    • Mya Lewis says:

      Many fields were severely gender imbalanced before women began to enter the workforce in increasingly larger numbers throughout the twentieth century.

      Yet a number of these fields (especially in the social sciences, biology, medicine, the law) consistently yielded to admit greater and greater numbers of women.

      Why does mathematics (Terri Oda’s field of training) and computer science (her current field of occupation) not yield to this tendency?

      A simple explanation that only uses cultural and socialization factors doesn’t give a satisfying explanation–for those should certainly hold true across all fields.

      But math-intensive fields refuse to yield to this tendency. And this refusal is a stubborn one extending over multiple generations of people, at all levels of their expertise.

      For a reasonably up-to-date summary of the research, combined with a non-essentialist explanation that sensibly combines both biological and sociological factors, you could do worse than reading Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams 2009 book “The Mathematics of Sex”

      • tomrigid says:

        There are very few women serving in front line military units, relatively speaking. Should we focus on the inhibitory sociobiological factors?
        Perhaps we could also examine the rules which prohibit women from serving in combat infantry units. Or would that be too essentialist?

        Before you start measuring people you should see if they’re standing on step-ladders or down in a ditch.

      • Peter Erwin says:

        But math-intensive fields refuse to yield to this tendency. And this refusal is a stubborn one extending over multiple generations of people, at all levels of their expertise.

        The fraction of women getting degrees in math-intensive fields (I’ll skip over the mistaken assumption that no one in biology uses math much) like chemistry, physics, astronomy, and mathematics itself has been steadily rising over the past four or five decades. In the late 1960s, 5% of math PhDs in the US went to women; as of 2008, it was 31%.

        (Sources: American Institute of Physics report on women in physics and astronomy (2005):; NSF statistics through 2008: )

        Computer science is actually an outlier: the fraction of women getting bachelor’s degrees in the field has been declining since the early/mid-1980s. This is true of no other scientific field in the US.

  47. tomrigid says:

    @NGLGBR: You didn’t like something I wrote…but I’m not sure which bit, or from which perspective you’re complaining. 

  48. arcseconds says:

    How does biology explain the low numbers of women doing CS?

    Well, (post-pubescent) boys are on average biologically smellier than girls, that’s a biological fact.   We also know that clean people don’t like smelliness, and that girls are almost to a man clean people (I’m not claiming these are biological facts, just facts).  In addition, male computer geeks don’t wash.


  49. arcseconds says:

    A simple explanation that only uses cultural and socialization factors doesn’t give a satisfying explanation–for those should certainly hold true across all fields.

    er… why? 

  50. Broken Window says:

    There is not science to back up a purely cultural explanation for the differences in math skills. Some instances of better female performance can be shown by cherry picking the data.  No permanent contradiction to higher male performance  has been made, not even when the social acceptance has improved.

    Of course, one does not need to have top math skills to study CS.

  51. Amelia_G says:

    One of my grandfathers taught math (and chemistry) (in one-room Appalachian schoolhouses with 21-year-old coal-mining seventh graders looking for a fight and school board relatives “working” all over, plus he was a great story teller and very funny). Anyway, he said, ages ago and in difficult places, that math success is a question of how lazy you are.

    He said this in a discussion about how I’m nazzo guido at math.

    I would volunteer that I’m also not so good at thinking in a straight line, and ask for useful help with understanding and hacking that. I mean, wtf? Why, on earth, would I as a girl emerge from childhood with an understanding of why jewels are important but not being able to follow a conversation? What the hell happened and how can we counterteach it?

    I think, I think, you can show kids how to follow an argument, how to focus. I just don’t know how to do it. And because childcare is relegated to women, yinz are in trouble if you don’t explain.

  52. Amelia_G says:

    Re: autism spectrum. I moved to Seattle in 1999 and can definitively state now that a significant portion of autism/asparagus spectrum, plus depression spectrum if that’s been defined yet, is environmental. We are herd creatures.

    In other words, I don’t think these issues are biological. Another thread to pull might be a study about why women start whistling their “s’s” and then tend to congregate in human resources. I do not think this is biological either.

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