Saturday, September 19, 2009

Challenging, What Shock!

Across the papers I read this week, there was one that really stuck out to me. Bettina Bair and Miranda Marcus's paper "Women's Interest in Information Technology: The Fun Factor." The paper takes to task the problem of careers available to computer science graduates have a perception of being fun. This grows out of the larger problem of computer science and scientists having a very stereotypical view as boring, tedious, or uninteresting.

Part of the study asked students to choose a job from IT related careers that they were most familiar. Then they had students choose adjectives to describe how they felt about the jobs. From these lists of adjectives they concluded that women don't see IT jobs as fun while many men do. The conclusion goes on to cite some examples of programs that encourage better perceptions of IT careers.

But everything isn't that simple. Looking at the lists that women chose, I'm not convinced that women feel IT jobs aren't fun. Citing one line specifically, "all students described work as a Web developer as 'creative,' 'interesting,' 'fun,' and 'complex'; but female students said that the job would be 'challenging,' while the male students said that it would be 'exciting.'"

When did challenging become a bad thing? I'm confused about when something hard became something not worth doing. We idolize the people who can do the difficult. People overcoming obstacles and challenging themselves are the stories we cherish everyday. I can't understand why in a list of "creative, interesting, and fun" why challenging would be a bad thing. Especially when compared to data entry jobs which both genders described as "easy" and "tedious." Moreover what are some jobs that are easy but aren't tedious? By describing a job as challenging I highly believe a job becomes more desirable rather than less.

In the end, this just feels like echos of the talking Barbie debacle. Sexist attitudes continue to resonate that women find certain fields difficult and I don't believe that assuming difficulty is isomorphic to uninteresting is valid. Just from attending classes at CMU I don't think very many students would hesitate to say that classes are challenging but I believe for most this is a positive, not a negative. Perhaps this is a question to keep in mind when we start performing surveys.

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