No, really. Where are they? Now that I've noticed, I can't help but see a conspicuous absence of female computer scientists at every CS event I attend. So where are they?1

I admit it, I'm late to this party. I didn't even notice the problem, really, until very recently. But once you do notice it, it's really overwhelming. Let's look at my previous post on the Silverman talk of a few weeks ago. 27 men, 4 women. So 23 women (85 percent!) are MIA. Why?

I've been quietly posing that question to several female colleagues that I know and trust, and I've received a different answer from each of them. In rough order of applicability (and greatly paraphrased by me, just to be clear):

  • "You know you're not the first person to think about this, right?" (Uh, well, now that you mention it...) "Well, you're not. The CRA-W has been thinking about this a lot, and has been doing a lot of research into it. And as result, we know that the problem starts at age thirteen, when girls start thinking that it's uncool to be interested in math or science. So congratulations: it only took you twenty years to notice the problem!"
  • "Well, I was driven away from CS when I entered college. The male CS students seemed to know so much more about computers and programming than I did, and I just assumed that if I hadn't been programming since junior high then I would never be able to catch up to them in college. And besides, they spent all their time proving that their dick was bigger than the other guy's by having really heated arguments over these really obscure technical issues. Not the kind of environment I wanted to be in as a beginner."
  • "There aren't that many female role-models in the field, yet. It really, really helps when there's a woman in a senior position, like tenured faculty or chief scientist. It gives you hope that someone will stand up for you, or be willing to take the time to mentor you. And right now, there aren't that many women in such positions."
  • Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. "Well, okaaaaay, you asked. Here, let me take the next 45 minutes and tell you all about the rampant amount of sexual harassment that I've had to endure in my career so far..."

(I also expected to hear about the stress of family obligations, and issues of work/life balance. If I'd had the chance to ask any female computer scientists with young children, I probably would have.)

So, yeah. There seem to be a lot of reasons those 23 female computer scientists were missing, and they started to go missing 20 years ago.

I'm not sure what to actually do about the problem yet, of course, and I'll let you know when I do. But in the meantime, let me give you two reasons I don't accept:

  1. Women, as a population, are just not as good at math/CS as men are.
  2. Women, as a population, are just not as inclined to pursue careers in math/CS as men are.

In a perfect world, I would actually be inclined to be sympathetic to these arguments. I do believe that there are differences between the genders (as populations) and relatively negligible differences between the averages can turn into huge differences at the extremes (which is where I'm looking). But as I said, I would be sympathetic to these arguments in a perfect world. I'm definitely not sympathetic to them in this world. Why? Simple. When I hear them used, it's usually in bad faith. Not consciously, of course (I hope), but still: when I hear them used in conversation, they are not used because the speaker has evidence that they are true. They are used because the speaker wants them to be true. They are used as thought-terminating clichés. They are used to end the conversation without anyone having to feel too uncomfortable. They might explain part of the problem, yes. But when they are brought up, is it to give people permission to pretend that they do explain all of the problem and, therefore, no one involved needs to guilty about it.

So, go ahead and argue either of these two possibilities with me, but only if you have some research that can estimate the magnitude of its effect. That is, unless you can tell me how much if the problem is due to inherent differences between men and women (and back it up with legitimate evidence), don't even bring it up. It serves no purpose other than to distract from the very real systemic problem which we might actually be able to solve. Uncomfortable problems, sure. But that's no excuse to rationalize one's way out of acknowledging them.

  1. If your response to my question is anything along the lines of "No, wait, there are plenty of female computer scientists-- there's this one, and there's that one, and there's this other one..." then you're really just making my point for me. Do you think that if I asked about male computer scientists, your first reaction would be to start enumerating them?