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How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn't.

by Web security researcher at Carleton University on Oct 17, 2009

  • 574,322 views

I used to do this back-of-the-napkin style presentation on whatever paper was handy when someone told me in person that women just weren't good at math, and that's why there were so few women in ...

I used to do this back-of-the-napkin style presentation on whatever paper was handy when someone told me in person that women just weren't good at math, and that's why there were so few women in computer science. I'm not sure what possesses people to say stuff like that to female mathematicians, really.

Anyhow, the point is that yes, there is some gender disparity in math skills, but if you do the math, it simply doesn't add up: those differences simply cannot explain why there are so few women in computer science (or in open source software, or in physics, or whatever).

Many people misunderstand or abuse the information we have about gender and ability differences. Hopefully this presentation will explain what the data really says (which isn't very much).

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  • lshirman The Shirman Group at The Shirman Group Recalling my CS classes at Cal, and looking around at the developers at Silicon Valley tech events today, what I see are lots of men. But not just any men. Very predominantly, they are men from societies where sexist attitudes and the degradation of women are completely acceptable and commonplace. Little wonder those attitudes make it to the workplace. 7 months ago
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  • terriko Terri Oda, Web security researcher at Carleton University To answer a few of the most common questions I get:

    95% of the emails I get are variations on this:

    Q: Thanks! You made that research a lot more clear. I enjoyed it and want to share it with my friends/colleagues/family, is that ok?

    A: Thank you! Please feel free to share the slides!

    And then maybe 5% (and usually from men) are one of the following:

    Q: But your graphs aren't perfect! What do you have to say about that?

    A: The graphs were freehand drawn on my laptop touchpad. Of course they're not perfect. Did you miss the part about the moose? This is meant to be a funny presentation on the internet, math for laypeople, maybe a bit imprecise but sufficient to get the point across. The fact that the math isn't perfect is an intentional part of the joke (and judging from the emails I get, one some people are getting!)

    Q: But what about this other research that says $x?

    A: The art of a presentation is often more about what you take away than what you add. (Just witness the success of Steve Jobs!) I'm aware of a lot more research on the subject than I included here, but as a science educator I've learned that simplifications are very useful tools when communicating with a large audience whose background may vary considerably. I'm glad that you've done some extra research, though -- that's the goal of this presentation, to encourage folk to move on from this one common myth.

    Q: This is a stupid premise, why are you arguing such a stupid straw man?

    A: It may be a stupid premise, but it's extremely prevalent, and often brought up in arguments. I'm sorry I wasn't refuting the more deeper questions you may have, but one has to start somewhere! I thought we'd save ourselves all some time if one could answer this 'biology explains everything!' mentality with 'here's a link' and again, judging from the emails I get, it's been pretty useful in that regard!

    And then there's one question that's burning in many people's minds:

    Q: If it's not biology, what is it?

    A: We don't know. Or rather, there's no clear consensus, and it's hard to tell because it seems that there's a lot of cultural factors in play so we have to find the answer over and over again for each sub-population and cultural group. (Plus, some of the existing research has been refuted, and even some recent research is coming from scientists who don't have very good reputations, which muddies the waters some!) But the thing to remember is that it's probably not a single answer. Biology may even play a role in the explanation (for example: one could argue that higher testosterone levels in young males account for some unfortunate social constructs in young male dominated silicon valley startup environments, which snowballs into effects across the industry), but all evidence points to this problem having no simple answer.

    If you're curious (and I'm glad you are!) you should probably realize that you're asking the wrong type of expert: I have a PhD in computer security, and what you're looking for is probably a sociologist, a psychologist or a neuroscientist to answer deeper questions about the research.

    I've given you something akin to a first year psychology course explanation of the issue (in fact, my psych prof did something similar when we were talking about myths about humans in lecture one day), but you might want to look at some popsci books on the subject (One that's been recommended to me is 'Pink Brain, Blue Brain') to direct you to more cool research if you're not ready to dive into scientific papers yet or don't have access to university catalogs. The key for popsci books is that they are also simplifications, but often their references are a treasure trove of interesting papers to read later if you don't know where to start on your own.

    Also, one thing I'm not seeing mentioned much in the comments here is the outright ostracization and harassment of women in computing, something many people outside the field seem to be unaware is happening. I'm quite sure this *is* a factor, and if you want to know more about it, here's a list of incidents you might want to read up on: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline_of_incidents Some are very mild terrible 'jokes' but many included death threats and outright assault of women in computing, and the sheer volume of such incidents does not paint a pretty picture.
    7 months ago
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  • meghanhurlburt Meghan Hurlburt @andrewnorris7583 The interest or lack thereof comes from outside factors and how you were raised, not from natural inclination. Women shy away from computer science at very young ages after concluding that they would not be treated fairly, or after they were discouraged to pursue such careers. Your comment implies that the terrible gender ratios in computer science are due to natural factors, when they're really due to societal ones. 8 months ago
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  • danielkuhn1 Daniel Kuhn @terriko, you've proven that differences in 'ability' (actually 'scores') can't account for the difference. But there are two problems with that.

    First, differences in scores do not necessarily convert to differences in ability. We know, thanks to many other studies, that men (boys) typically give lower effort in school. If a girl studies for four hours for a test, in any subject, and the boy waltzes in without studying, and they obtain the same score, we wouldn't say their raw ability is the same. Moreover, this might explain quite well the difference in career placement - if women are putting forth much more effort to learn the same task, it's not likely to be something they find enjoyable as a career.

    Secondly, there is far more to 'biology' than ability. I scored well over 700 on my math SAT back under the 'old' scoring. I was in an extremely challenging engineering program for two years. Guess what? Due to many other factors of my 'biology', I hated it. I dropped out, wandered for a while, and eventually found law. I am an attorney, in a happily math-lite practice. I had the 'ability' to do engineering or science, but not the 'biology.'

    Anyway, unless they taught us something VASTLY different in the final two years of engineering school, I know enough about engineering, computer science, and STEM fields in general, to know that NONE of these careers involve the use of your genitals. Therefore, your answer, when people ask you about women in your field, should be 'Who gives a crap?' The real, non-discriminatory answer would be that it doesn't make a difference that math is overwhelmingly male, just like it doesn't make a difference that teaching and nursing are overwhelmingly female.

    I could make a very entertaining graph about male vs. female 'nurturing' and 'compassion' abilities, in an attempt to explain the differences in those two professions. Or, I could keep doing what I do, which is to say, 'It doesn't matter. Let people live their lives and do what they like doing.'
    8 months ago
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  • stanleeee Stanley Tam, Director of Marketing at Tima Networks Inc @Terri Oda, I wonder if the same observation holds the same argument for cultural differences. Conventional hearsay always claims that Asians are better at math but I am not convinced about this at all even though I am Asian. I think it has a lot to do with our up-bring that we were often told we have to be good at math as a boy (not as Asian but simply that we are males) so we tended to work hard and be more competitive to become better at math. Any opinion on this one? 8 months ago
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  • andrewnorris7583 Andrew Norris It's well known women, on average, have a different set of interests. It's not just about ability to do it, as this report suggests. It's also about whether they have an interest in doing it. This could be an inherited interest. Note I said on average, as there are always exceptions. Some women are very interested in CS. 8 months ago
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  • meghanhurlburt Meghan Hurlburt @tjk3 Experiences in early childhood and in elementary school can still be sexist though, I know most young girls aren't encouraged to pick up computer science. I know I wasn't but I'm glad I did anyway. 8 months ago
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  • meghanhurlburt Meghan Hurlburt @radiohost Actually, most early pioneers of computer science were women. 8 months ago
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  • JackRing Jack Ring It may be that the linear-thinking male is more comfortable with the necessarily linear writing of code than is the multi-perspective-thinking female (in which case the M/F ratio should be higher among Fortran'rs than among DBMS'rs.)
    If so, then the field of systems design and architecting, c.f., www.incose.org should be more attrractive to the Venus than to the Mars types.
    8 months ago
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  • MSchultz62000 Mike Schultz, Client Relationship Manager at Elan Financial Services I was always told (and believed) I was not 'good at Math.' When I got my CS degree, I decided I was better at 'non-tradional math,' a term I made up. Now I think maybe I am just good at problem solving...

    Whatever the case, I really appreciate your presentation, content, style and humor!
    8 months ago
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How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science?  Hint: it doesn't. How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn't. Presentation Transcript