Mark Guzdial wrote this short report from a gathering of the National Center for Women & IT Computing (NWCIT). Several talks focused on international studies that show that IT is not considered a “male” vocation in many less developed countries. For example, says Guzdial,
Vivian Lagesen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology presented her study of Malaysia, where the 52% of all CS undergraduate majors are female. Vivian interviewed students, department chairs (mostly female), and a Dean (female). She found that Malaysians can’t understand why anyone would think computing is particularly male — if anything, they consider it more female, since it’s safe, mostly inside work “like cooking.”
We’ve seen this in our work in Malaysia as well. Even in schools where males and females are taught in segregated classrooms, the prevalence of female IT staff and IT teachers is striking.
The article summarizes some speculation about why this is true, but here’s my take on it. I believe the search for gender identity is a strong human need. When societies evolve to be more equal, the barriers to gender entry into specific fields change from externally imposed to self imposed. Women used to be strongly discouraged, even banned outright from certain professions. That, thankfully is no longer the case in the US.
Instead, these practices have been replaced with more subtle cultural definitions of what femininity and masculinity mean. I think people are as influenced as much by these subtle signals as being overtly told that women “aren’t good at math.” In other countries where women have more defined cultural roles, perhaps they feel like they have enough gender identity, and don’t have to rely on a job to define themselves.
My thought is that there is a fine line between outright discrimination based on gender and culturally imposed definitions of gender that mold girls’ views of who they are. And if there are fewer externally imposed rules, people create their own. Sending messages to girls about their ability to be engineers and scientists has to go beyond simply telling them, “you can do anything!”