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Women in Computer Science April 18, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.

Another article I saw yesterday in the NYT discusses the lack of women in computer science (you might get the feeling I end up reading only the NYT – I do read the Economist too, but I don’t have online access, so I almost never write about it…). I initially started reading it because of the picture of Ed Lazowska – a faculty member of the U of W (and someone I’ve actually met). I liked this line:

For decades, undergraduate women have been moving in ever greater numbers into science and engineering departments at American universities. Yet even as they approach or exceed enrollment parity in mathematics, biology and other fields, there is one area in which their presence relative to men is static or even shrinking: computer science.

Uh.. Physics too!

The big problems, these and other experts say, are prevailing images of what computer science is and who can do it.
“The nerd factor is huge,” Dr. Cuny said. According to a 2005 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, an academic-industry collaborative formed to address the issue, when high school girls think of computer scientists they think of geeks, pocket protectors, isolated cubicles and a lifetime of staring into a screen writing computer code.

Yes. Yes. We know we are nerds… But I’m sure it goes beyond that!


1. Kristin - April 22, 2007

Yes, there are lots of interesting comments about the article on the NY Times website. Computer science, like physics, might be a stable career for a few lucky ones, but the field is not as ripe with opportunity as it once was.

Neither is physics as appealing as it used to be, what with the shrinking number of industrial laboratories and flat funding and openings in academia. I earned a Ph.D. in physics as the only woman in my top program ten years ago and then left the field. On top of having been a very strong student as an undergraduate, I also felt encouraged to go into graduate school because I wanted to prove that a woman could make it in physics and because these numbers were flying around about how all of these faculty would be retiring come the millennium.

Nowadays nobody could argue that there’s any shortage of physicists, and I think that there are so many other arenas where women will find themselves much better rewarded for comparatively less work. I would encourage technically-minded young women to major in engineering where there are so many more opportunities in industry (and it’s harder to offshore medical device research, for example, too). By contrast, the physics culture really works out the best for people who can sacrifice most of their lives to the science, and that’s just not that appealing to most people.

2. gordonwatts - April 24, 2007

Ouch. 🙂

But let me turn this around a little bit: are men and women really so different that it shouldn’t be 50-50? In effect, the argument you make here is that women are smarter than men! 😉 All the things you say are correct at some level (though science funding is starting to rise again, but we’ll see if that stays). Even so, why should a larger % of women make that decision than men?

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