Thursday, August 25, 2011


Fragments from Orientation Week

-- Watching audiences from the back of the auditorium is always enlightening. For Liberal Arts orientations, I saw many tattoos and handheld electronics, and few strollers. For Teacher Ed orientation, I saw many strollers and few tattoos or electronics. Criminal Justice usually leads the pack in baseball caps per capita, using per capita in the most literal sense.

-- 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.

Re: information technology in general, and the lack of women entering the profession: you're right on the money there. What you're perhaps missing, though, is that it's not always the dork factor which puts women off - it's that IT seems to have cultural blinkers on which result in those women who *are* in the industry not being as visible as their peers in, say, Education.

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.
Look on the bright side:
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.
A kid asks to take bass lessons and comes home excited after the first lesson: "dad, I learned the first 5 notes on the E string." Kid spends the week relentlessly playing these 5 notes. After the second lesson, the kid is just as excited, this time because the kid learned the first 5 notes on the A string. Same thing happens, the kid plays these 5 notes all week.

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 ...'

Jus' sayin'.
when it comes to IT, the low ratio of female workers is due to the same reason that there aren't many female plumbers.

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.
How about earthquake and hurricane during first week of classes! Tuesday was super fun.
it's just not a glorious job to most women.

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.
One of my students once write a paper explaining that just as the arts are dominated by people who are emotionally tuned to be inclined to depression and bipolar issues, computer science types were more likely to have high functioning Asberger's type emotional issues. Polar opposites, in fact. The men who once would have been monks happily copying in their cells and designing new ink are now in Silicon Valley making millions. Interesting theory; he had some research to back it up. How this help us steer more women into CS/IT I'm not sure. It does explain a lot about my ex (I'm a theatre sort/he is a computer nerd).
The math thing for CS is significant- math aptitude for women in my family comes in later in life. I actively avoided some fields because they had more math.

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?
The tune of "Oh Christmas Tree" is also the tune of "The Red Flag". Type B personalities indeed.
on women in IT - it's not so much male computer nerd culture, as male gamer culture. When I studied CS in the 80s, there were plenty of female nerds in my classes, and the faculty was 40-50% female. Once PCs and PC games had been around for a few years, nearly all male CS students came from a gaming background, and the atmosphere in CS classes became very hostile. Add to this the emerging Internet and pr0n sites, it became a perfect storm of misery to be a woman in CS.


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.
A comparison with medicine is instructive. In the early 20th century women wanted to join the medical and nursing professions, and faced massive bigoted opposition. They got in by persistently doing a better job at every level.

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?
Just a quick note that my little sister is working her way up the IT security food chain, and yeah, it's a good way to make a living.
I teach CS at an all-girls' school. First, unlike the arts, biology, and most other disciplines, it's rare for CS to be offered at the HS level. If it is, it's a "business" course. Or, it is a hard-core programming course and the teacher is an old-school engineer. Ask me what kind of atmosphere that creates.

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.
Interesting point made...why aren't we worried about the fields where men are underrepresented? Why can't people just go into fields that they like or are good at?
I cannot speak in anything more global than my own experience as I am not in the IT field. I started college as an chemical engineering major. I finished a chemist. The switch was entirely due to the environment. My peers in the chemistry class acknowledged me and treated me equally, my peers in the engineering classes did not. The profs treated me differently too. I felt as if the engineering profs regarded me as a "silly girl" as they ignored my questions and did keep scheduled appointments for meetings. I only got that treatment by one chem prof and I am fairly certain that was because he wanted nothing to do with the classroom or ANY of the "silly students" that came with it.

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.
Ooops... that should have read, "... and did NOT keep scheduled appointments..."
Actually, people do worry about fields where men are underrepresented--teaching and nursing come to mind. People worry about teaching, especially in lower income schools where male teachers can serve as role models for young men at risk of dropping out or otherwise performing poorly. And, frankly, any field benefits from diversity--gender, race, etc.
One of the big turnoffs for women in computing classes is that there's a strong competition culture.

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?
“the odds are good, but the goods are odd” -- Oh DD, I just had a blast at Caltech!
As a girl in a (non-IT) engineering program around the turn of the century, we also used to say "The odds are good, but the goods are odd" in response to some of our (old, male) professors statements that we were studying engineering to find a good husband. Seriously, some PROFESSORS said that and it was not that long ago. We even had T-shirts printed with that saying on them! It is certainly a problem that there are so few girls in IT (and most other engineering fields), and as a young woman who is also a community college professor of physics and engineering now, I see girls all the time who simply do not consider these technical fields as possibilities for them. This even happens with girls who are very good at math, and for those of you who would disagree, many of the best math students I have seen are girls, but they still don't consider careers in IT or other similar fields. I'm not sure entirely why this is, but I think it is a combination of the perceptions that they have of these careers (sitting in cubicles, not interacting with people, etc.), and just never considering that this is something that girls do. I have convinced several of them to change majors, but it is an uphill battle. In a few rare cases, it could be because they think it is "too hard" or "they don't like math" as other posters have said, but there are plenty of girls who would not stay away from something because it was hard, but just choose another (equally hard) major (pre-med, pre-pharmacy, etc).
I'm still wondering, at 33, what I am going to be when I grow up. I get along well with computers and am a fairly bright person, so IT has crossed my mind.

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...
Anon @ 12:38--I came to IT late in the game, though I'd dabbled in technology since, um, Pong. :) It was web design that really got me hooked and got me the skills I needed to keep doing IT as an actual career. That was 20 years ago. I've shifted from web design to a wider variety of programming, which takes some time to practice (and it is mostly practice). But I'm here to say, you can do IT/Tech/Computing at any age. You just might not be a CTO tomorrow. But there are plenty of opportunities.
Speaking to your point about why women aren't as represented in certain sectors, I don't know if you've seen this article or not:

Almost as dreadful as the situation described in the post are the comments to her post.
I'm female, and I took plenty of CS classes in undergrad. One of the main problems I had was that the male students would ignore me and not work with me on projects.

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.
Hey folks... I thought that I might point out there's some large-scale research here that might be interesting:

Economics of Education Review
Volume 29, Issue 6, Pages 885-1184 (December 2010)

The whole issue is about persistence in STEM fields.
see 8 Former child stars in kids plays that stuck with their child faces

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