Lil’ Miss H4x0r? How gender has affected women’s pursuit of computer sciences.

This entry is part of a research project for Cultural Interfaces and Cross-Cultural Rhetoric at Stanford University. For more about this assignment and the class projects, click here.

It is a phenomenon that has perplexed researchers for the past decade or so: the so-called “shrinking pipeline” of women in computer science. The trend has been such that the number of women pursuing advanced degrees or careers in this discipline has been dropping over the years, despite the increasing popularity of computers and information technology in the world. According to statistics offered by the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, only roughly 20% of all bachelors degrees earned in computer science were earned by women. Why this gender gap?

Numerous causes and explanations for this great female deficit have been offered, anything from the structure of a school’s computer science curriculum to women’s lack of exposure to computer technology in the first place. However, given the wealth of masculine stereotypes surrounding the discipline, I am interested in studying the role that gender in the social context plays in affecting women’s success in pursuing computer science. How have perceptions of women by society and themselves shaped their personal goals and motivations, and how have they fared as a minority far outnumbered by their male colleagues?

So far, I have come across many ways in which being female puts one at a “disadvantage” in the classroom. (Of course, none of these have to do with intellectual capacity.) Especially helpful to me is Margolis and Fisher’s book Unlocking the Clubhouse, which describes several actual instances of female students simply losing confidence amongst their male peers or being taunted for their gender, regardless of the girls’ sincere interest in the field. There’s also the “double standard” for female students as representatives of their entire gender, the idea of “tokenism” that Cooper and Weaver’s book Gender and Computing discusses in some detail. These forms of discouragement and unnecessary pressure, I feel, are quite unfortunate and unfair; finding a way to give more support to these female students would probably help with computer science’s retention of females.

Then again, the picture is not all that hopeless. Obviously, there are some girls who do rather well in the discipline and who do not seemed phased by the male-dominated environment. I had interviewed a few girls in Stanford’s computer science program, and they all appeared very confident in their abilities as computer science students. One even felt that she was smarter than all her male colleagues. (Now, if only this “go-get-‘em” mentality could be instilled in all women in the discipline, what a difference it would make!)

Of course, it’s not fair to blame just the women for the gender gap. For some people, there’s something about the computing culture that just is not very appealing. Researchers Gurer and Camp note that the atmosphere of the IT workplace can be quite distasteful to women, whether it be for different standards of social propriety between men (the majority) and women (the vast minority) or the incompatibility of the job with raising a family. While I have not yet had a chance to interview a female working in the computer industry, there is an abundance of evidence supporting this unfavorable view of the computing workplace. For some heated opinions, try reading this blog on the New York Times’ website. True, not everyone can be pleased in this world; in this case, it just so happens to be the women. But things don’t necessarily have to be this way—or at least that’s what I’m hoping for.

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