Beki Grinter

A Computer Science Plot

In academia, academic management, computer science, HCI, women on May 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm

A colleague sent me this plot. It shows the percentages of women attaining Ph.D.s in various disciplines. I was viewing it on a laptop, and so I had to scroll down for a while to find Computer Science. Our numbers are not good. Actually I find them depressing.

In the College of Computing I think we’re proud of our demographics, that we have women in all ranks of the faculty. But we also believe more can be done. When I look at that graph I wonder just how, precisely, we’re going to achieve that. That’s why I find this depressing.

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  1. Who is “we”?
    Are we the people on admissions & hiring committees?
    Are we the teachers encouraging women to take our CS classes?
    Are we the women themselves, choosing to pursue careers in CS?

    If I’m hiring, I wouldn’t want bias in hires.
    If I’m a teacher, I want to encourage students to follow their passions, not necessarily CS.
    If I’m a woman, I want to follow my passion, not necessarily CS.

    Or is this a matter of unequal access, and affordance?
    Does standard CS education not afford women access to the coolness of CS?
    Are women missing out on something they really would like, if only they knew? If only the misperceptions were cleared up?

    Or is the problem that we have not enough men in psychology and english literature? Should we encourage more men to apply to those fields so that they stop crowding out female CS students? Is this a matter of achieving equality for equality’s sake? Or is CS a more useful, more important discipline? In that case, should we just encourage people not to apply to english lit and psychology in general, because CS is more important?

    I guess my general question is: how do we know the world would be better off if more women were in CS? Certainly the department would be a more enjoyable place to work with a gender balance. Certainly our designs would gain a ton from the feminine perspective. But what would be lost? Aren’t women pursuing other things that are also valuable?

  2. I subscribe to the idea that intellectual diversity comes with human diversity, and that is why the field would be better off.

    If you are at CHI, there is a panel on Tuesday about the NSF’s Broader Impacts criteria for all proposals–if you are not familiar with it you might find it interesting, since it’s clearly a statement of the Federal position on diversity… and the panel should inform us how that is going to change in a few short months. I believe those changes are about actively making changes to the composition of the discipline.

  3. Oh I totally agree that our field would be better off with more women. But this plot puts in perspective for me — what about the other fields women are choosing? Are they better off with fewer women, and are women better off in computing? It seems myopic to just focus on CS, and if we are arguing that more women should choose CS, we’ll need to convince them, or the other fields, that they’re making the wrong choice.

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