The NCWIT meeting this week at the Googleplex was probably my favorite of their meetings yet. The Academic Alliance meetings were really focused and productive, but what really knocked it out of the park for me were the great talks on cross-national studies of women in IT. I knew that most of the Western world had the problem of too few women in CS, and I knew that there wasn't a problem in some Eastern nations. Yesterday, I got a much broader and clearer view.
Vivian Lagesen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology presented her study of Malaysia, where the 52% of all CS undergraduate majors are female. Vivian interviewed students, department chairs (mostly female), and a Dean (female). She found that Malaysians can't understand why anyone would think computing is particularly male -- if anything, they consider it more female, since it's safe, mostly inside work "like cooking." Vivian found that the three primary influences on students going into CS were their personal enthusiasm, parental interests and wishes, and job prospects, where the last two were much more important than the first one. The Malaysian government actively encourages students to go into IT, because they see it as the core of the successful strategy by their neighbor, Singapore. Vivian concluded that the gendering of computing is constructed by the West, not at all inherent to the field.
Maria Charles of U. California at Santa Barbara presented her take on the problem from multi-national studies. She says that the problem of gender inequality is due to a belief that genders are "different but equal," and that members of different genders are so different that they might as well be from different planets (like Mars and Venus). She thinks that making claims that "CS has characteristics X and Y that will attract women" only serves to highlight essentially false differences between genders. Differences in attitudes about math and sciences between men and women are greater in the developed world than in the developing world, where women and men see math and science pretty similarly. In the developing world, computing (and math and sciences) is a great career choice, and that's what drives interest. (Roli Varma later echoed this point in explaining why CS is so much more popular in India than in the US among women -- it's more important that it's a lucrative job than any perceptions of masculinity.) In the developed world, women and men seek to affirm their feminity or masculinity by making gender-appropriate career choices. "Girls like X, and I'm a girl, so I'll do X." And the ever-aggravating, "Boys do math." In the developed world, women make education and career choices as a form of self-expression, so they opt out of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields early. She suggests that forcing all students to take more STEM classes would give them the opportunity to discover their interest and aptitude for those fields.
There were more talks that were really good (particular a great one from Joi Spencer of the University of San Diego on how math education is much less about hard problem-solving in the US than it is in other countries that do better than us on the TIMSS results). These talks alone really highlight for me a new way of thinking about why there are so few women going into CS, and why it's different in the developed world from the developing world.
My own approach to getting more diversity in our computing classrooms is to make the curriculum more relevant to the students. An argument I get is that, "We're teaching essentially the same topics in the same way today as we did when there were more women in computing. How could the introductory curriculum matter? And if all introductory classes meet the same ACM/IEEE standards, how could the curriculum lead to differences in one part of the world than another?" I think these studies point out that our students today are different, they have different goals, and US (and other developed world) students are looking for something different than students in Malaysia or India. It then makes sense to do something different, if we want a different result.