Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CCSC:MidWIC and Thoughts on Women in Computing

This past weekend I presented a poster at MidWIC, the Midwestern Women in Computing Conference. This was both an extremely frustrating and fairly interesting experience, and got me pondering the whole "women in computing" issue. I felt like the conference not only missed the point of why women are such a minority in CS, but actually brilliantly illustrated the problem: we were placed in a small, cramped building away from the main building with all the food and keynotes (where CCSC was taking place), presented posters more or less only to each other, were given lipstick in the swag bags, and had a social dance at the end of the first day...the organizers were obviously under the impression we were all 9 years old.

However, that brings up an interesting issue. Women are most certainly a minority in Computer Science, but how do you not only encourage more women to join, but also promote them in a way that doesn't come off as condescending? So much of this is a major cultural problem that isn't going to be solved overnight. And by intentionally trying to promote one group you're doing the very thing that no one really wants: singling out a group of people based on their gender rather than their common interest in computer science, and thereby creating a very delicate dilemma. I want women to be promoted, in a sense, but only in the sense that, if I were to go to a general computer science conference, where everyone is attending due to nothing more than a deep interest in computer science, I will be taken as seriously as everyone else and I'll find as many women being taken seriously as men. So at that point I'm not even being promoted as a woman anymore, just as someone who loves computer science and has some knowledge about it, and therein is the catch-22.

However, that leads to another question...should we even bother promoting women in CS to each other? We're already women in CS, it's too late to make us be any more "into" CS. The challenge is to get teenaged girls interested in Computer Science, and plant the idea in their heads to check it out when they get to college. That requires mentoring programs (as well as a massive cultural overhaul, but again, that will take years at best) where women not only show their younger counterparts that they can do CS, but that they can be as good at it as anyone else. This is a challenge, especially for less well-funded schools, but it's a massive step in the right direction.

None of this is original, I'm sure, but if nothing else it helped illustrate in my own mind the problems being faced right now.


Nicholas said...

I agree that having more women in the computer science program at Ball State would be beneficial to the program and all involved.

You raise an interesting point that by singling out women people are doing exactly what they are trying not to do, I guess as a guy I really have no perspective on this, but I could only imagine that if I were a woman I would want to be viewed for my value and not as a potential "quota filler."

My thought lies herein: is the lower number of female students in the CS program the result of improper guidance, or perhaps the information is just more appealing to men. While I am not an expert I have read in multiple places that men's thought patterns tend (on average) to be more logical, whereas women are much more apt at the creative thought patterns. Computer Science is a very logical study - and if anyone doesn't believe me, they must not have taken a class with Drs. Tzeng or Nelson.

HappyCodeMonkey said...

I suppose the most frustrating part was that they were using stereotypes in order to "celebrate" that we were women in computing...I mean, really, lipstick in the swag bags? I may have been overreacting, but I found it offensive in a really futile way.

I'd really be interested if you had any links that related to your thoughts...once again I'm wondering whether or not this is due to nature or nurture. Our culture has a major influence on how women see themselves and their "role" in society, which is why I felt that earlier mentoring is essential to break out of these pre-conceived gender roles (ie, girls are bad at math, to make a horrible generalisation). However, like yourself, I'm absolutely not an expert.