Feminism and the Gender Disparity in Computer Science

To those who follow me on any form of social media, I am first a Computer Scientist and second everything else. Despite how inaccurate that perspective is, it is only fair given that I exclusively present myself as such. However, I am just as much of a Feminist and philosophy enthusiast as I am a Computer Scientist. It is quite easy to fault in only presenting myself relative to my career, as it consumes a significant part of my life, thus this blog post is meant to demonstrate my ardent advocacy for Feminism and gender equality. I have given a few talks that have scratched the surface of this topic (My Keynote talk at Think Computer Science 2012), but I have never fully expressed my passions pertaining to Feminism. So without further ado, here goes.

What isn’t Feminism?

I have never thought that there could exist a (noun, verb) pair that at the instance of reading it, would immediately throw me into a fit of rage.

“Feminists believe …”

As I once tweeted in rage (3 consecutive tweets to be exact)

“This article makes me angry. They speak of feminism as if it’s one school of thought, as if it’s only the waves that differ. Claiming that feminism is radical is like claiming “political theorists” are radical. And feminism is considered the new F word mainly because our inherently misogynistic society is responsible for portraying it to be radical.”

The lovely article I was referring to claimed that the reason Katy Perry isn’t a feminist is because she has deemed it to be too radical. First and foremost, since when are we listening to one of the most sexually objectified pop stars to tell us what Feminism is? How can anyone in their right mind watch California Girls and think “Yes, her, she will eloquently articulate an objective stance on the status of the Feminist movement.” Wait, what? It’s California Gurls? Even better. But no fear! Zooey Deschanel declared herself to be a feminist. Victory!

All sarcasm aside, the Feminist movement is greatly misconstrued in not only mainstream media, but also modern society. As I have briefly mentioned, Feminists can be compared to political theorist in the sense that there are many “movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.” Spoiler Alert! We also disagree on what “equality” means!

Now before I address a few of the Feminist ideologies, I want to answer a question that I often get asked when I reveal that I am a Feminist.

“Why Feminism? Why not gender equality?”

Many would claim that gender equality sounds more fair, less radical, less bold. Perhaps it’s the word “Feminism” that scares so many away! So “Why Feminism?” indeed.  First and foremost,  I do not deny that males do experience various gender inequalities such as being expected to be the bread winner, be more successful than their partners, conceal their emotions, etc. However, these inequalities are not comparable to what women experience. Our inequalities in no way stand on the same plateau; take for example this chart on America’s gender wage gap. Given this gender disparity, it’s of the utmost importance that there exists a movement whose primary goal is to alleviate women’s vastly uneven circumstances. After all, it is only as of late that women have been given fair rights. After thousands of years of oppression, we cannot merely pass laws that enforce equal rights and hope that the misogyny ingrained within our society disappears on its own.  In fact, there are still many societies, such as Saudia Arabia, who enforce the oppression of women. I personally believe that by enforcing women’s empowerment, we would also be mitigating some of the gender inequality males experience.

People often mistake female empowerment for female supremacy. This tumblr user once posted a really interesting photo claiming:

“I need Feminism because … it is important for people to know the difference between female supremacy and female empowerment.”

As the post clearly states, Feminism is about the “empowerment of a demographic that is disenfranchised,” and too often do many associate Feminism with female supremacy. Perhaps there are schools of Feminist thought who advocate such supremacy, but they constitute less than a fraction of a percent of the movement. But as I have emphasized various times, Feminism is not a monolithic ideology. Here is a brief list of a few, but very differing Feminist schools of thought:

  1. Liberal Feminism
  2. Cultural Feminism
  3. Marxist Feminism
  4. Radical Feminism
  5. Lesbianism
  6. Psychoanalytic Feminism
  7. Multicultural Feminism
  8. Socialist Feminism – Dual-Systems Theory vs. Unified Systems theory
  9. Existentialist Feminism
  10. Postmodern Feminism

Here is an excellent article giving a brief summary of each of these differing schools of thought. If you’re interested in a more comprehensive reading, I highly recommend “Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction” by Rosemarie Tong, as it is by far my favorite book on Feminism. As to what I personally believe, that requires an entirely separate blog post. In brief, I find that our concretely defined gender roles are the root of our gender inequalities, and I believe that the destruction of all societal gender constructs as a whole would be most beneficial. This concept may be known to many as “androgyny”. Perhaps in the near future I will write a detailed blog posts fully explaining my views.

Women in Computer Science

It is blatantly obvious to most that the male/female ratio in Computer Science is quite a skewed one. The most recent Taulbee Survey reports that only 13.8% of CS Bachelor degree recipients, 21.0% of CS Masters degree recipients, and 18.2% of PhD program enrollments are female. It is a longstanding question of why it is that women are not attracted to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Various theories and solutions have been proposed, but we have only seen a very slight increase in the enrollment of women in STEM fields in the most recent years. One of the most appalling theories that I have heard claims that women are just incapable of comprehending advanced scientific concepts. Let me debunk such an atrocious myth by presenting you this article from 1967.

“This article appeared in a 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan and quotes computer scientist Dr. Grace Hopper, a pioneer in the field, discussing why programming is a perfect fit for women — by drawing partly on gender stereotypes by assuming women are “naturals” at programming because they’re patient and pay attention to details.”

Despite the blatant sexism that appears in the article (This is 1967 after all), it is proof that Computer Science was once a female dominated field. Numerous other articles from the same time period exist to support such a claim. And if this wasn’t enough proof, take a look at this article which eloquently articulates how

“Talented, young female mathematicians calculated the artillery and bomb trajectories that American GIs used to win World War II.”

So it is clear at this point that we are capable, in fact, we are more than just capable. Brilliant women who forever changed Computer Science with their astounding ideas such as Admiral Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace are not exceptions to the rule. They are a sound representation of how well women can perform in Computer Science. That still leaves us with two unanswered questions. Why is it then that women represent such a miniscule portion of the Computer Science community? And when did the presence of women quickly dissipate?

Feminism in Computer Science

One of the most convincing analogies I have heard pertaining to women’s lack of presence in Computer Science is my advisor’s (Byron Cook) analogy to the Sockeye salmon’s journey from ocean to stream. He presented a set of slides over a year ago demonstrating why the male/female ratio is heavily skewed at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Below is a map of the Sockeye salmon’s journey from the Pacific Ocean to stream. Each black bar represents a dam along the reservoir, clearly an obstacle for the proper migration of the Sockeye salmon. The number of salmon which are able to overcome the obstacles of migration decreases consecutively with each dam.

Below is an analogous chart representing the percent of women who make it through each consecutive “barrier” from the prior one to the next until MSRC is reached (MSRC is only meant to represent a prestigious research institute which many desire to be admitted to). These barriers are the societal constructs which are present throughout the lives of women, discouraging them from joining a STEM field such as Computer Science. An example of a barrier to children is the cultural practice of providing various engineering-like toys to young boys, while girls are merely given still dolls to entertain them. This practice allows boys to harbour engineering interests, while providing a subtle message to young girls that engineering is not appropriate for their gender. Another crucial barrier is  the “nerd” stigma attached to Computer Science, which tends to push away numerous adolescent females.

However, the most crucial barrier of all is gender bias. Numerous studies have demonstrated that “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.” Not only must women overcome subtle societal constructs discouraging them from joining a STEM field, but they must also struggle against gender biases present in the scientific community. Due to gender bias, the reality of the chart is presented below

It is clear that the Feminist movement is important to the Computer Science community. If we aspire to balance the heavily skewed gender ratio, then we must put forth great effort in helping women overcome these various obstacles. This is a daunting task given that it is unclear what many of these barriers are, let alone how to go about solving them. As for how it is that the presence of women quickly dissipated post-1960′s in Computer Science, that is something I hope to look further into. Perhaps understanding how women became less involved will give us a concrete idea of how to encourage them to be involved once again.

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