Monday, November 17, 2008

Women and Computer Science

Yesterday, with sadness, I read this article in the New York Times which wondered, where are all the women in computer science?

I must say, it made me both sad and confused. Apparently, while women have largely achieved parity (in terms of undergraduate degrees) when you take science and engineering as a whole, women in computer science has been dropping steadily. In fact, latest estimates for the most recent classes of undergraduates place women as numbering less than 10%. For undergrad. If you continue to lose with each higher degree, which is the norm for women, you wonder if I am one of the last of my kind. I mean, shit.

10....measly....percent. Why is this? I cannot figure it out, exactly, because figuring it out would require that I determine what it is that makes me extremely unusual. I know I'm unusual, I'm ok with that, but I have a hard time thinking that I am *extremely* unusual because I view the world as a big bell curve for everything and just by principle I am unlikely to lie at the extreme end of any of them. But apparently I do.

It has been wonderful for me to find this community of lady science bloggers online, but at the same time I feel like I don't totally belong in this group, because I have never worked with proteins, used a pipette, or worked with anything remotely alive or cellular in my work. All the hot, sexy science discussions are outside of the reaches of my comprehension. I can take a big picture idea, but that's IT.

In somewhat loneliness the other day, I actually went into google reader, which has a nice search function to find blogs that interest you, and typed in "female computer science."

Guess how many bona fide blogs came up? TWO. I subscribed to them both.

I have divulged extremely little information on this blog (I think) regarding what I do specifically, because I fear that just that little information could make it pretty easy to pick me out. How sad is that? I know people in biomedical or medical research, and the labs are FILLED with women. I know that doesn't make it easy, it's still a patriarchal sausagefest at the top, but like...I went through all of graduate school being the only girl in journal club. The first time I went, I was late, and I felt soooooo self conscious when I walked into the room with 30 men, late. I wanted to crawl under a table and die. I just felt so out of place. Also, I go to conferences, and when there are 20 women there out of 300, people say, "wow, there are a lot of women here." Can you believe that?

One of my advisors (not the one I discussed the other day - I am co-advised), has been a full professor for many years, we're talking he achieved full professorship sometime when I was in elementary school. He's no spring chicken. And he has NEVER graduated a female PhD student. Ever. I will be the first. Can you imagine?

I desperately, desperately want to know why this is.

I have a few theories but that will be another post. Back to work.

12 comments:

ScientistMother said...

It sucks to feel alone. I felt like that for a long time and was so grateful to find grad students who were also moms. Have you met nicky at http://gradovaries.blogspot.com/? she's also in computer science. I believe she works with intelligence design. tell her I sent you!

Mackenzie said...

You can find a bunch of female computer scientists to buddy-up with through LinuxChix (I did a search on your blog, and you did mention teaching future children Linux, so I assume you use it). We've got mailing lists, an IRC server, blog aggregator, and sometimes someone will volunteer to teach a class for the others. Mostly, we have lots of socializing, though.

PhizzleDizzle said...

@SM: Thanks, I stopped by her blog!

Wow, Mackenzie, you are a power geek (just checked out your blog). I love it. I do use Linux, though not exclusively, Mac OSX too. *nix I guess, is my thing.

I read with interest about how to teach your cousin how to code in Python. That is another thing I hope to foist on the kiddos when I have some.

May I ask, how did you find me?

EthidiumBromide said...

I totally don't feel your pain, because my lab is estrogen overload. It's out of control, and I have no idea why, and I actually think it might be a bad thing for my future (post forthcoming). Considering that my work is all biochemistry, it makes no sense why we have an all-female lab (you know, CHEMISTRY is in the name, which means that women should theoretically be running the other way). Most of the other biochemistry labs around here have one or two females tops. Us? Two male PIs (but they're not really IN the lab, so they don't count), all female post-docs, all female grad students, four female techs, and one lone male tech who is leaving in 3 weeks (because he's taking time off before starting med school, he claims, but probably because he can't handle all the women). Seriously, I don't get it. We are the antithesis of every other lab out there.

Eugenie said...

Phizzle- i've never worked with protiens (yet)... all my research experience has been programming-related...
(taught myself C freshmen year... it was one hell of a picnic...)

and yet, I'm studying biology...

Nicky said...

Thanks for visiting!

I have no idea why CS seems to be falling behind even other engineering fields when it comes to representation of women. I once (yes, only once) went to a "Graduate Women in Engineering" event at my school. There were more than 50 women in the room, and when we went around saying what field we were in, the most common reaction I got was, "Whoa, really? CS? I didn't think there were any women in CS!" And this was from other female engineering grad students!

I finished my undergrad more than 10 years ago (took time off before starting grad school -- the dot com boom rocked!) and I'm still in touch with my undergrad advisor, who is also a woman. At least once a year, she still checks in with me to make sure I'm still working on the PhD, and still plan to go into academia. I think she wants me to "replace" her in the field by the time she retires, so that the number of female CS professors will at least stay constant after she's done. It's totally depressing. It's also a lot of pressure -- I'm kind of tired of feeling like I'm representing all of womankind....

Nicky said...

Also, is it evil of me to be amused that scientistmother confused artificial intelligence with intelligent design? :)

NJS said...

I am not in computer science, but most of my research involves programming applied to problems in my field. I've used Matlab, Fortran, and some more field-specific programming languages so far. I have no laboratory.

While there is good female representation in my graduate program, there is only one female faculty member and she's pretty new and untenured. At my undergrad uni, there was also only one (relatively new, untenured) female prof.

ScientistMother said...

Nicky you are totally evil to be amused by the fact that I equated intelligent design with artificial intelligence. Though if you watch the sarah connor chronicles they reference the bible alot! :)

PhizzleDizzle said...

@Nicky: I know how you feel. I feel enormous pressure to stay technical for the sake of womankind (as opposed to going into like, I dunno consulting or something and making bank). I also feel enormous pressure to "represent" well - I think much longer and harder about what to wear to conferences and talks and all that. Sigh. But I will press on. Not only to represent geeky chicks, but to you know, try and revolutionize computing and all that ;).

Gail said...

Phizzle: Sounds like you need to attend the next Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I went for the first time this year. You can read about it on my blog and see for yourself how amazing it was :)

Roy Latham said...

Being 1 in 10 is not really extreme. A list of all the attributes that apply to a person: IQ, height, interested in [x], lives in [y], has a degree in [z], etc. would have hundreds of entries. For any person, the probability is that 10% of the categories will be at the level of extreme that concerns you. In fact, it's pretty likely that you will be at the 1 in 100 level in a couple of things.

this sort of thing appears all the time. If 500 stations report the weather, one of them is probably having the worst weather in 500 years. Yet such events are viewed as amazing.

I don't know why more women are not interested in engineering, but it doesn't matter. In my long career I've know some really outstanding women engineers who have done very well in the profession.