Public image, self-image, and women in computer science

Pictured: Actual female programmers at Women 2.0 Startup Weekend, November 2011.

Xeni posted last week about the EU's rather ridiculous "Science: It's a Girl Thing!" video, which was aimed at recruiting girls to science careers and, instead, hit enough vacuous stereotypes of femininity that it ended up seeming like a parody of itself.

This seems like a nice moment to note that the Txchnologist website is currently posting articles in the theme of "Women in Science and Technology". One of those pieces is an interview with Margo Seltzer, an actual female scientist. Dr. Seltzer teaches computer science at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Most science and technology professions have a hard time attracting and retaining women, and computer science is no exception. Only a quarter of employed computer scientists are women. Txchnologist asked Seltzer about her perspective on the problem, and what steps she thinks might help make computer science more female-friendly.

What's interesting about this interview, in light of the "It's a Girl Thing!" flap: Seltzer does think that image—the messages people get about what a computer engineer has to be like—makes a big difference in who decides they want to be a computer engineer. Which is basically the same idea "It's a Girl Thing!" was trying (poorly) to address. Unfortunately, the EU video ended up being all image and no substance, and worse, it added to the image problem by telling people what girls are supposed to be like. (By that video's definition, I am not a lady.)

Instead, Seltzer says, the problem is that computer scientists are portrayed in a negative way that doesn't fit who they really are—whether male or female. If we had a more well-rounded view of the wide variety of people that actually go into computer science, maybe more women could see themselves in that career.

MS: I think the biggest factor is that as a society we’ve done a really, really bad job of marketing what it means to be in software. If you ask somebody, “What does a computer programmer look like?” I think almost everyone in the world will give you the same description—it’s a nerdy guy with no social skills and all he ever wants to do is program. The reality of the situation is very different. But the image that we’ve constructed societally is really pretty dreadful.

You get articles about the problem and articles that discuss it, but you actually don’t get anyone portraying a different image very often. For a long time we’ve joked about the fact that we need an L.A.-Law-type show for computer programmers, where you have young, good looking, really fun, intelligent people who happen to be software engineers.

If you look globally, there are countries where that isn’t the image, and in fact, their numbers are dramatically better. I was recently speaking with some of our Oracle engineers from China and they pretty much have a fifty-fifty split of men and women. And they think it’s sort of odd that we don’t.

Read the rest of Margo Seltzer's interview. It's worth checking out the whole thing. In particular because she points out that this public image problem isn't the only problem. Even in the 21st century, many workplaces set policies that implicitly tell female employees, "You're not really welcome here." Maybe they're the ones who really need reminding that science can be a girl thing?

Image: Pitch Day - Women 2.0 Startup Weekend, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from adriarichards's photostream


  1. I doubt it’s possible to recruit girls to science without also inadvertently recruiting some boys to science.

    In fact, it might be easier to combine two recruiting efforts: one that encourages everyone, perhaps by appealing to the curiosity that motivates science, and another that specifically discourages boys. With careful tuning, one can encourage girls while having roughly no net effect on boys.

    1. I don’t think the goal is to discourage boys at all. Instead, I think we want everyone to feel like they can pursue things that interest them, and that they will be welcomed in professions that sound interesting to them. 

      In order to achieve that goal, there are quite clearly changes that need to be made to the way we portray the sciences and the way science jobs deal with female scientists. 

      But I think those changes are also likely to help some men feel like they can pursue an interest and that they will be welcomed. And that’s a good thing, too. The entire point of Seltzer’s argument is that both men and women computer scientists are portrayed in very negative ways. 

      Stop trying so hard to find things to whine about in a discussion about how to make a profession more accessible.

      1. I don’t think the goal is to discourage boys at all.

        Looking forward to Congress considering the Defense of Boys in Science Act.

  2. All one has to do is look at how toys are marketed to children in the US to see where the problem begins. Check out boy toys vs girl toys in any catalog or toy store. Look at how boys vs girls are portrayed in the media. It is self perpetuating.
    The difference in the sexes is drilled into kids from the minute parents learn the sex of their child. Little girls are all gentle and pink, little boys are serious and active.
    It has gotten better since I was a girl in the 60’s, but not very much, and I am afraid there is some backsliding now.

    Until this changes there is little hope.

  3. In Taiwan they solved the problem by dumping all of the guys into the military for 2 years right after they get out of High School.  So the gals just go straight on to university and are in the majority in Computer Science and a lot of other sciences as well.

  4. Solved? Aside from the “China might nuke/invade/etc at any moment, which obviously the dinky little island must have a military to protect it from the gargantuan behemoth just a short boat ride away” problem. I have a few probably at-odds statements about all that.

    The guys are probably still getting better training AND hands on experience. That will translate to better prospects in the real world (if they ever get there.) Not to mention the fostering of a boys-club atmosphere that will likely also spill out to the real world too.

    And yes let’s shove all the young men, whether they are able, apt, willing or not into a military organization. That’s never caused other problems down the road.

    Also, and I’m damned serious about this, (as it applies to all places with drafts, draft-like systems, or mandatory service that is NOT universal, Israel being the only place I know of that has universal mandatory military service. Strange that.) why the hell do women get a pass on mandatory military service? It has always made me wonder why it is that women will bang the equality drum as much and as hard as they can but only grudgingly pull out the equal military service requirements tambourine. Obviously, nobody really wants to be put in harms way but to be fair in all of this, one really should think about this double standard too. And yes, I realize that women serve in the (Taiwanese) military, but it’s voluntary.

    More to the point. I don’t really think the best solution is to hold the men back. The best solution is to push the women forward.

    1.  Please, cites on “women [who] will bang the equality drum as much and as hard as they want but only grudgingly pull out the equal military service requirements tambourine”.  I’ve never seen it.

      Yes, My Mother *Does* Wear Combat Boots

      1. With all respect due to your mother, I’ve never seen any feminists try to pass a mandatory military service law for women. Possibly because there are more pressing issues for feminism to deal with, and maybe (I really have no idea) the majority of feminists are against mandatory service, period, but still.

        1. Right. My intention was not to say that mandatory military service is a good thing, far from it actually. But my point remains valid. Inequality is inequality. Double standards are double standards. And all forms of it should be rooted out and fixed. Not just the convenient or obvious incarnations. Regardless of one’s gender these issues should be questioned. And that was all that I was doing. That and pointing out the potential problems with Nadreck’s proposed ‘solution’, which is basically an attempt to punish men for being men while perpetuating stereotypical gender roles under a slightly different model and still doing little to nothing to actually change the gender gap.

      2. “I’ve never seen it.”

        That was the point Ms. Yes,-My-Mother-*Does*-Wear-Combat-Boots.

        FWIW, so does my mom.

        My point was that fair is fair. So what was yours?

    2. Women in Israel, while subject to draft, serve almost entirely in support and administrative roles. Appreciate the irony: A woman can be an airborne instructor, but can’t join the airborne units themselves. 

      Also, if a man gets married while in the IDF (mandatory service, not career military), his service period is reduced. If a woman gets married while in the IDF, her service period ends pretty much immediately.

  5. There’s some conflation between computer programmer and computer scientist in there, but otherwise… yeah.

  6. i agree, the best way to attract women to IT is to stop hiding the ones that are already working in the field. i was surprised to read the “only one out of four employed computer scientists is female” statistic — i would have thought only one in five or six. the percent of female conference speakers should at least reflect this and not 1/25.

    i would disagree personally with the statement that “There are aspects of computation that are becoming more attractive to women.”, and then goes on to mention social networking as an example. i graduated from an old-school comp sci degree program with heavy focus on low-level logic. why is there the presumption that we have to make the subject matter warm and fuzzy to attract women? it’s kind of insulting, like saying we can’t hang otherwise.

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