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New Statement on Women and Computer Science

July 5, 2018
 
 

An instructor at the University of Washington set off a major debate there and elsewhere over his recent essay in which he says that the low proportion of women in computer science is at this point largely a result of women's choices and is unlikely to change. University officials immediately disputed his claims.

Now, Hank Levy, director of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, has issued an additional statement, again taking issue with the essay by Stuart Reges. In the new statement, Levy criticizes Reges for suggesting that the discipline of computer science is unchanging, and that academic and professional fields can't move from being seen as unwelcoming by women to being seen as welcoming.

"In 1975, only 16 percent of medical school graduates were women. This grew to 40 percent in 1995 and today, as Reges notes, approximately half of medical school students are women," Levy writes. "Reges quotes Unlocking the Clubhouse, using the statement that 'Concern for people, family, "balance in life," novels and a good nights’ sleep should not come at the cost of success in computer science' as an indication that women and men differ in their values and interests, and as a reason why women prefer fields other than computing. Yet these are the very same issues that exist in medical schools (residency is 3 years of isolation and sleep deprivation!), but somehow over the last 40 years women have chosen to become doctors in large numbers. How could that be? Obviously something changed over that long period -- most likely both the medical system (which was male dominated and treated women poorly in 1975) and women’s interest in the profession. The point is, we can clearly work to change some of the factors listed in the previous paragraph, and young people (of all genders) can and do make different choices over time in the fields they wish to pursue: those choices are not predetermined at birth based on the colors of our baby blankets."

Added Levy, "I refuse to accept Stuart Reges’ 'difficult truth' that we aren’t likely to make further progress on gender diversity in computer science beyond an arbitrary ceiling of 20 percent women. Nor do I believe that increasing the percentage of women in the field has to come at the expense of men; practically speaking, the industry can’t hire qualified people fast enough -- therefore, it makes good business sense, as well as being the right thing to do, to draw talent from all genders and backgrounds."

Via email, Reges criticized the new statement. "I am disturbed by the lack of commitment to scientific inquiry and the misrepresentation of my article," he wrote. "He says that I have not addressed the "why" even though my article describes several relevant studies that provide an answer to that question. He says that I claim that, 'women's choices are essentially entirely due to gender-based differences,' when I went out of my way to say that, 'It's Complicated.' When scientists aren't willing to consider the possible influence of free choice in explaining the gender gap, they will come to the wrong conclusions about whether there is still significant oppression in our field."

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