Thursday, August 25, 2011
Fragments from Orientation Week
-- We need to figure out a way to make “information security” appealing to the masses. It's one of the few areas in which well-paying employers are going begging for people, and we can't fill classes. To the extent we do get students, they're exclusively men. Young women should know that if they go into this field, they can write their own tickets. Not entirely sure what's keeping them out, though I know it's not just a local issue.
-- My best theory, and I’m not entirely happy with it, is that male computer nerd culture acts as a sort of female repellent. While there’s probably some truth to that -- a female friend who attended a mostly male technical university reports that the saying among the women there was “the odds are good, but the goods are odd” -- it’s not obvious why that’s unique to a narrow band of fields. A generation or two ago, most fields were male-dominated; now, at least at the cc level, women are in the majority. There seems to be something about the computer field specifically, though I don’t quite know what it is.
-- Watching HP flub the Touchpad/WebOS thing has been an education in itself. I was honestly hoping the Touchpad would take off, if only to get some (%^)& apps in the pipeline for my Pre Plus. Instead, they drove the entire platform into the ground. If nothing else, maybe the touchpad's abrupt posthumous success at firesale prices will at least convince other manufacturers to lower prices. I can't justify five hundred bucks for a tablet, but one hundred? Now you're speaking my language...
-- The Boy and The Girl started music lessons this week. He chose guitar, and she chose piano. It would be lovely if the public school offered those, but alas. (They offer nothing until fifth grade, at which point they push instruments like french horns and trombones. No disrespect intended, but given the choice between french horn and guitar...) We found a little local music school run by a guy who could have been Jeff Bridges' role model as The Dude. TB's guitar teacher is a slightly fatter version of Shaggy, from Scooby Doo. But they're amiable, and I kind of like the idea of exposing the kids to some, uh, let's say “type B” personalities in small doses. Diversity takes many forms...
-- You'd think there would be a limit to the number of times a day that a seven-year-old girl would play “Oh Christmas Tree.” You would be wrong.
-- An earthquake and a hurricane in the same week seems like a bit much. I'm just sayin'. And choosing orientation week is just cruel.
GeekFeminism have plenty to say on this issue, and their wiki also has a list of possibilities for getting girls into IT. Denise Palluci also talked about the cultural pressures which guide women away from IT here, from the perspective of someone who's project has a far higher than average number of women. Although she's talking about open source coding rather than education, some of the factors may be similar: lack of preparation; not being encouraged to take an interest in the field; disinclination to become a focus of derision in a male-dominated field.
You get to practice your emergency open/close decision making and information distribution systems while classes are not in session and the stakes are somewhat lower.
Now the kid goes to the third lesson, which is supposed to end at 8. 8pm comes and goes, and no kid. 9pm, still no kid; 10pm, no kid. By this point the parents are freaking out. 10 becomes midnight, which becomes 2am, and finally the kid walks in the door. The kid's shirt is untucked, hair is all over the place, there are stains of unknown substances on the kid's pants, one might be lipstick. And the kid smells of cigarettes and stale beer. 'Where've you been', the parents scream, 'it's 2 in the morning'. The kid puts up their hand, exhales a weary sigh and says 'whew, had a gig ...'
it's just not a glorious job to most women. it's a job where there isn't much social interaction (i can go several days in a row without speaking a word to anyone), where you work in cubicles, and you spend most of your time making others look good without getting much credit. it's a job where you must constantly be looking for new ground to conquer, and that is a very male-driven way of thinking.
it is not a field that women get excited about, and i've talked about this with women i know. it takes an engineering mindset and a really good math foundation to be a good developer, and, in case you haven't noticed, there aren't a ton of female engineers (the numbers are better for petroleum engineering & industrial engineering, but not for EE, CE, mechanical or aerospace engineering). i'm not saying that women can't be great at those things by any means. but take the % of female math majors and multiply it by the % of female computer/electrical engineering majors, and you'll probably get the % of females in IT.
if you want to know why girls don't get into IT, just ask them. ask an 18 year old girl why she didn't pick CS as a major. i can tell you that you won't like the answers. i've tried to talk girls into choosing CS at our local U. "i don't like math" or "it's too hard" are the excuses i get.
and there are a lot of nerdy, nerdy IT guys. but there are some who you could meet outside of their job, and you'd never know they were an insanely good software developer. the socially-apt ones will get into management early in life though.
But that doesn't explain why we start with 30% females in intro CS classes and graduate 15% females. They aren't switching out of the major due to cubicles, as they haven't experienced the professional things you mention (soul-sucking cubicles, etc).
It's an embarrassment that we can't keep the ones we get.
That said, women as a group do better in mathematics, astronomy and even physics itself than they do in CS, where there are declining numbers going into the field. It's a culture problem too.
As for the awareness thing, if I'm typical that may be a problem to. To be blunt, I don't even know what type of job someone with a 2 year degree in IS does. It sounds like writing scripts to make webpages ok for credit card transactions or something.
Not a skill I would mind having, but a lot less glamorous than using hidden markov models to discover new transcription sites. Ok, can you tell I'm a biologist who has been thinking about taking up enough programming to do bioinformatics?
When I started in CS it was about as glamorous as accountancy and the population tended to be smart thoughtful introverts of both sexes. I miss that.
A geophysicist once told me the Anita Hill case saved her career. The sysadmin moved his stash of pr0n off the company server, the ‘teasing’ displays and comparisons of her with what was on the screens, all stopped: so it became possible to actually do the job instead of wasting time evading and otherwise coping with harassment.
Why not apply Occams Razor, and assume that many females do not study some subjects because they simply do not like them. The attrition rate that coderprof sees could simply be females that drop the course once they know fully what the course involves.
Conversely, are there some subjects (speech therapy?) where males are under represented? Why is the same concern not being raised?
I have many girls interested in CS, but they worry it's going to be too hard or they they need serious math skilz or whatever. The thing is, there are many, many ways to pursue a CS career. Some will involve serious math skills. Others, you just need the typical skills any decent college student will have.
Try looking into NCWIT--it's a great organization that offers a ton of resources for recruiting women to IT programs. They showcase women in IT, so that women see what it's really like. And, no, it's not always code monkeying away in a cubicle.
The culture can be pretty bad--go read any Slashdot comment thread and you'll get a sense of how tone deaf some programmers can be. I just ran into one of those elsewhere today, where one programming language got compared to a hot, sexy chic and another to the wifey. Yep, really happened, in 2011. The culture will change eventually, but we need more than 25% women in the field first--and some areas have a less than 10% figure. Sigh.
I make significantly less maney than I would have as a CE but I am still happy I made the change. I think I am a much happier person not being regularly subjected to such a degrading environment.
I have no idea if it would have been different once I was out of college and in the work force but I wasn't willing to put up with four years of it to maybe find out things didn't change on the outside.
I saw it a lot at a university I worked at, where many assignments were framed as competitions. It turned a lot of women off, not just because of the idea of competing, but because the competitons brought out the worst in the men.
How are you framing your IT security? Is your college using war or police metaphors? Are you selling it as math/programming heavy?
InfoSec is a balancing act between being ugly enforcers and being educators and finding ways to keep things secure and still easy to use. Male heavy seems to trend it to authoritarian.
(There's also a lot of unthinking adherence to old ideas of what is secure/insecure, and using checklists, but that's probably not gender as much as it is lack of understanding of both technical and people issues.)
More people interested in how people think and work compared to those who want to constrain them with technology is going to be a lot better for the industry. So maybe frame your pitch for your courses to attract people of both sexes who are interested in facilitating?
But it feels like the barriers to entry are just so high; that you have to master calculus by the time you're 17 to be able to catch on, and that if you're not in the game by the time you're 22, you're never going to be successful. Weirdly, I persist in believing this even though my own brother is a CTO despite never graduating college. But he started so young. By now someone my age is practically over the hill for a manager in some shops.
Anyway. It certainly doesn't feel like a place for career-changers.
As for those who go to DD's cc right out of high school, I think Laura has a lot of it in her first comment. If you don't know tech people in your family/daily life (and for the first-generation and/or financially disadvantaged college students that you're likely to find at a cc, this is probably the case most of the time) you just don't have access to what these people do for a living and it doesn't come across as a real possibility.
And if you do know tech people - maybe you know someone like my brother who has a job he loves but also works an insane number of hours. If you're thinking long term about having to balance work and kids...
Almost as dreadful as the situation described in the post are the comments to her post.
In CS 2, I was the only female in the class and the only student who worked alone on homework assignments. The guys immediately formed partnerships and worked together both in and out of class. One of them finally talked to me a few weeks before the final when I was the only person to complete an assignment during class time rather than have to try to finish it for homework (the instructor called me out for "giving up" when he found me re-organizing my home directory rather than working on the assignment, which I'd already finished, so the rest of the class was aware that I finished first).
In Computer Architecture and Assembly, I FINALLY had a male classmate who was willing to work with me after the first midterm (when it became clear that I was getting pretty good marks and actually understood the stuff).
In Algorithms, a group of students finally realized, over halfway through the term, that I was one of three students who routinely understood the the homework and started letting me join their homework study group so I could tutor them and they could also get homework problems right (the other two students, both male, who consistently got their homework done correctly without googling worked together - most of the class was totally lost and copied answers from the web).
When I was on my school's ACM programming competition team, my two male teammates (assigned by our school's coach) ignored me and wouldn't let me touch the computer for most of the competition, even though I'd spent the semester turning in consistently better results in our prep competitions.
I am not a particularly sociable person and not great at reaching out to others, but I never had that level of trouble finding study groups in any other class in college, including math. I'm not sure why the CS culture was so toxic at my school (I suspect that the department head's attitude didn't help), but it was a pretty obnoxious experience. "Fortunately" I'd had similar experiences in middle and elementary school computer programming electives so I didn't take it personally, but it was still annoying as hell to be doing twice as much work as anyone else because no one would work with me. I can see why a more socially-focused girl or someone new to being The Only Girl (who might have cooties, after all) would bail and find something more rewarding to do with her time.
Economics of Education Review
Volume 29, Issue 6, Pages 885-1184 (December 2010)
The whole issue is about persistence in STEM fields.