Only the Developed World Lacks Women in Computing

Only the Developed World Lacks Women in Computing | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM.

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!”

Your thoughts?


5 Replies to “Only the Developed World Lacks Women in Computing”

  1. The article was a great read for me as a mom of 2 daughters. We often think that what we read or hear about in the US must be the gospel. It is nice to know that others don’t have the same results. As a parent I tried to provide computers, blocks, building supplies, and lots of exploration in the sciences, but it is disheartening when the latest character on NICK or DISNEY demonstrates how girls should really act, feel, or behave. I once thought how cool the show iCarly was. Two girls producine their own webshow. Yep it is cool, but the technical genius is a boy. Was there not another girl that could have provided that necessary support?

    Our culture plays a part in how we teach and why we do so. Our social and religious history indicate what roles men and women should have. I think it is high time we change that behavior. Our girls can be engineers and programmers and our boys chefs and nurses. We should stop this nonsense and just get back to teaching kids.

    Thanks for bringing this to discussion.

  2. Hello,

    I just stumbled to your page, linked from GATECH. I am a Malaysian and currently teaching in Malaysian public university. Yes, throughout Malaysia the phenomena is true, where the number female students which are admitted to the university is almost double to their male counterpart.

    And this affect the computing school as well. Malaysians are dominantly Muslims and this shows that Islam does not discriminate women for work.

  3. @m’slan – Thanks so much for confirming our experiences. You might be interested in the work we are doing in Malaysia teaching students to be leaders in technology by taking responsibility for tech support, peer mentoring, and teaching teachers in their own schools. Although the classes are separated by gender, we immediately noticed that women take an active role in technology.

    We in the west think we have all the answers about gender equality, but I think we have a lot to learn from others.

  4. I was one of the first women attending Ga Tech in the 60’s.
    Some men were generally not too happy to have women there.I loved the computer & calculus classes I took there..and went on to finish at Univ of Colo with a degree in math & minor in computers..I loved programming and did an impressive satellite re entry program in the numerical analysis class I took there, in 1969 when I was pregnant with my second son.
    After graduation, I tried to find a programming job in the Denver area but was unsuccessful, being a young mother with 2 children, I was not considered a serious candidate by interviewers..I have never been able to get a job in the field I loved so much..
    I am grateful that my daughter and her generation, now in their 30’s are in a totally different world, able to apply for a job without being asked about family planning 🙂

  5. Cynthia – I really appreciate this comment – I went through engineering school in the late seventies, and it was slightly better. We probably had about 20% female students. I did get some sexist comments in job interviews, and one of the reasons I took the job I did was that I saw several women, including some in management positions when I visited the office.

    It’s important to remember that even with gains in the ability of women to get into traditionally male professions, that we aren’t that far from your experience. We just have to keep pushing.

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