The share of women in many science and technology fields has increased dramatically in the last generation -- in some cases reaching parity with men. But women's gains have lagged in computer science, some technology fields and in the businesses where many of the graduates of those programs aspire to work. A new book says that both colleges and businesses can do better. Failing to improve, the book argues, means wasting talent that could promote innovation in both academe and industry.
The book is The Future of Tech Is Female: How to Achieve Gender Diversity (New York University Press). The author is Douglas M. Branson, the W. Edward Sell Chair in Law at the University of Pittsburgh. Via email, he answered questions about the book.
Q: How pervasive a problem is sexism and sexual harassment in the tech industry?
A: Objection -- compound question! Just kidding.
As to sexism, the best evidence of sexism may be found in the numbers themselves. Five percent or fewer of the managers in tech are female. My book finds that only 5 percent of tech companies’ highest-paid executives are female, compared to 25 percent across publicly held companies generally. Of the 27 women in higher positions, only two have STEM backgrounds. Twenty-five have either law degrees or master’s in business administration (M.B.A.s).
Little evidence one way or the other exists of sexual harassment in the tech industry. What looms large is evidence of hostile environments: posters and photos of scantily clad women on the wall, lower pay for women, nerd-type environments dominated by young men with poor hygiene and poorer attitudes toward women in their midst.
Q: Do these problems limit the interest of women in enrolling in computer science and related fields as college students?
A: Sexism in the industry signals to forward-thinking young women at least that limited future opportunity may exist for being hired and then being promoted. Attitudes and practices, though, begin to dampen nascent female interest at a much earlier point. The first exposure of youth to computers and tech emanates from computer gaming, a gateway drug, if you will, that gets young persons “to put their head underneath the hood.” Males dominate (populate exclusively, really) the gaming industry, game characters are nearly exclusive male and if any females are portrayed, they are victims -- game themes are of combat, killing, scoring goals and subjects that have no interest for young women, and industry marketing is by means of sex and objectifying women (“booth babes”). The industry refers to software for girls and women as “pink ware,” made up of “shovel ware” (the most simplistic and easily designed type games). It’s a total turnoff, and it’s a disgrace.
At the high school level, boys monopolize computers, computer labs and teachers’ attention. The turnoff persists.
Q: What do you make of the lecturer at the University of Washington who recently published an essay saying that the share of women in computer science programs is unlikely to go up, and that this is a result of women's choices?
A: The gentleman’s views seen to encapsulate a view of women 50 or more years ago. Today women dominate medical school student populations, they are 50 percent or so of law school matriculates and female enrollees are close to that number in the M.B.A. schools. Today young women can do anything that young men can do. Women are moving much closer to profiles thought largely to be male 30 years ago. Men, on the other hand, are moving some of the way toward roles thought to be exclusively female 30 years or more ago, as primary child minders, as child minders in same-sex partnerships, as caregivers for aging parents and the like.
The only difference that will eventually remain is that women are (and must [be] to preserve the race) the child bearers of our species. That is not a personal choice. It’s not like choosing to play tennis or train for a triathlon -- personal choices. Childbearing is an imperative -- for survival of our society.
The minute persons begin to think the way the gentleman from Seattle does, they give an opening for the sexists and fogies to say, “After all, she was only a woman.” The only difference boards of directors and executives should recognize is the inescapable biological one: women carry to term and then give birth to babies. It may shorten their working life, say, to 34 rather than 37 years, but this seems statistically insignificant.
Several of the women who have become CEOs of tech companies have not a child, or two children, but three children. They say, I need my children more than my children need me. So maybe having children is a necessary as well as imperative choice for women who aspire. It’s not a “personal choice,” which is what I believe he means -- in a sort of demeaning or belittling way.
Q: What are the top reasons in your mind for unequal enrollment by gender in computer science?
- Hostile environments or perceptions thereof in CS and other STEM departments.
- Girls’ and young women’s late starts in acquiring background due to unequal parental attention, sexism in gaming, male monopolization of teachers and facilities in high school.
- At the university level, bust-out and butt-breaker courses early on, or any time at all, in STEM majors.
- A persistence of grading on the curve that works especially against those (women) getting a late start.
- Assigning the best teachers to advanced courses with TAs and rookies teaching neophytes, those most in need of capable and understanding teachers.
Q: What can colleges and universities do to recruit and retain women in these fields?
A: One bold idea would be to go part of the way (or much of the way) toward same-sex education. Several same-sex beginning courses would be compensatory, making up for past discrimination.
Another notion might be to emulate the “vestibule training” companies did for women first coming into the work force, around the time of World War I.
My studies show that at most universities STEM programs are like false fronts on movie sets. At most, the college or university will have a STEM advising office. There are no real STEM majors -- just the traditional ones (physics, math, chemistry, computer science). Give STEM real substance. It is surprising how little STEM really has.