Women in Computer Science

Dame Wendy Hall worries that the shortage of female computer scientists is due to the perception of computers as “geeky.”

Hall, who invented a forerunner to the world wide web, said the problem of a scarcity of girls studying computer science was "getting worse" despite huge efforts from the scientific community to address the issue.
Hall, the dean of the faculty of physical and applied sciences at the University of Southampton, told the Guardian that girls still perceive computing to be "for geeks" and that this has proved to be a "cultural" obstacle, so far impossible to overcome.

Hall is right to worry about the lack of women, and to look toward cultural factors that might be contributing. But the perception of nerd culture is a real problem, and it’s more nuanced than “women don’t want to be geeks.”

Sometime in the last couple of decades, it became cool to be a nerd (which is different from a geek though the two are related). When I was young, my favorite caper films involved some kind of “hacking into a mainframe” that I found fascinating. Young Lex Murphy, the girl in Jurassic Park (who was roughly my age at the time) could hack into things. And then there were video games, which were also really cool. I knew that programmers made those, and I wanted to make them too. So if tech is cool, and women are using just as many gadgets as men (if not more), where is the disconnect?

If you look at the young men in the average computer science department, you will find that most of them self-identify somewhere on the “nerd” spectrum. Keep in mind that they do not see “nerd” as a derogatory point, simply as a cultural identifier and useful shorthand for people with similar interests and personality traits. That said, I would guess that many young people come to computer science with an interest in making computer games, or from a more deeply-entrenched identity within nerd culture, so examining these cultures is a good first step toward understanding the lack of women in computer science.

Neither gaming culture nor nerd culture are particularly welcoming towards women, and many women looking in from the outside—even those that share the same interests as nerd guys—do not want to enter an environment in which (they think) mouth-breathing basement dwellers will view them as a sex object. This stereotype, though not representative of everyone in the culture, is accurate enough that it will probably be confirmed as the woman enters the culture, whether she’s told “there are no girls on the internet” or sexually harassed on a web forum or video game. Many women within the culture have found that men (and even other women) assume they don’t belong or are feigning interest to be more attractive to men (or sell to them). And then there’s the problem of many girls not wanting to be in such a small minority, which in turn compounds and perpetuates the previous assumptions about the environment. The more women there are in the club, the more women looking in feel that it’s safe to be a woman in this environment. It’s not that girls are scared of being unpopular, many just don’t want to interact with what they see as a hostile culture.

So the culture that feeds into computer science classrooms isn’t particularly female-friendly, but surely the atmosphere in the classroom is better? Unfortunately, the lack of female role models means that girls often feel out of place or avoid asking questions for fear of confirming stereotypes.

We need to create an environment where girls feel safe and comfortable, an environment where it’s okay to ask questions, where girls won’t feel judged for their sex. And when we’ve done a reasonable job of that, we need to make sure the larger community knows that computer science is welcoming to women. Hopefully once women see that they won’t be alone to fend for themselves in a classroom full of troglodytes, more women will be willing to join the club.