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. Read the rest