Home → Magazine Archive → February 2009 (Vol. 52, No. 2) → Women in Computing Take 2 → Abstract

Women in Computing Take 2

By Maria Klawe, Telle Whitney, Caroline Simard

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 52 No. 2, Pages 68-76

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What strategies can employers and educators use to successfully recruit, retain, and inspire women in computing? 

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Peter McCombs

I often read about how women are underrepresented in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.(STEM) I have always wondered exactly what "underrepresented" means. I now see that this is a function of population, given that "the gains listed here, while encouraging, stop short of achieving equal representation and point to the fact that much work has yet to be done." Ideally, there would be an equal number of men and women in the field.

Based on this same reasoning, I fear that the Amish are woefully underrepresented, as a minority, in the field of computing. Yet to achieve equity in this demographic would require a certain cultural destructiveness - an intrusion into the lives of people who don't wish to participate in the first place.

Equal participation between men an women in the field of computing is based on unexamined premises. It assumes a general equality in psychological, mental, cultural, biological, and lifestyle aspects of both men and women. It is a sort of egalitarianism that seeks to erase distinctions in order to serve an agenda.

In fact, the APA recently published a press release about a study that examined the participation of women in technical fields. The press release contains the following text:

"Even though institutional barriers and discrimination exist, these influences still cannot explain why women are not entering or staying in STEM careers... The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalize the sexes in these fields, especially given that women's career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them towards other careers..." (APA Press Release, March 3, 2009. <a href="http://www.apa.org/releases/women-math.html">http://www.apa.org/releases/women-math.html</a>)

While it is important to eliminate all unfairness to women who demonstrate interest in pursuing technical careers, it may be that pushing the ideal of "equal" representation is akin to forcing computer jobs onto the Amish. What valuable attributes are being pushed out in order to equalize the sexes? Such an approach is actually detrimental to the notion of diversity. Normalizing people rather detracts from the qualities that make them distinct from each other.

In mathematics, the inequality of values is what makes them diverse and gives them their unique and important features. Equations can only evaluate truthfully when the variables have the right value, regardless of how great or small.

Men and women are not the same. The numeric value "two" is not the same as the value "seven." In math, we do not hesitate to call two things that are not the same unequal. In politics and activism, however, it just isn't done. We must all be different yet equal. Thomas Hobbes once called that kind of logic "absurd."

We have a cultural confusion about what equality means when applied to people. We ought to examine the premise of equality before advocating beyond fairness.

Lisa Schwoob

I think this is a great article and a subject that needs to be addressed immediately. As a student, I have witnessed many women dropping out of the CS or CIS courses, due to feeeling "lost" or the courses being to demanding or too difficult to understand. I do not believe that the subject matter is beyond women, but the subject matter is not taught adequately. Many courses require a natural programming ability. The logic involved in computer programming can be difficult to grasp at first and there is tendency for professors to assume students will eventually just "get it." I also believe colleges and universities must do their part to retain women and minorities and this includes finding out why women and minorities drop out of computer science programs. We have to remove the elitism in computer science programs. Computer science is not just for the young and technically gifted and we have to do our part to encourage women and minorities to take computer science and computer information coursework. It is hard and demanding at times, but the rewards one receives in sticking with the program are great.

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