Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Margolis and Fisher - Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing

Hmmm. That is my general sentiment after reading Unlocking the Clubhouse. I finally got my copy of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Margolis and Fisher in from Amazon earlier this week and read and took notes on it. I have mixed feelings about it. A lot of the points the made were valid, but many of them... I disagree with.

One of the biggest things that I took issue with was inconsistency between claims and statistics. "The practice of grouping computer science with math and science, both informally and organizationally, may exacerbate the gender gap in computing." (Margolis and Fisher p. 37) Not even 20 pages later, they present a table of statistics and percentages of the attractions of programming to men and women according to a survey. 6% of men and 29% of women say that the fact that programming is math related is one reason it is attractive to them.

A more significant thing that I took issue with, is the implication that men and women are really, truly different. Margolis and Fisher discuss this at the beginning of Unlocking the Clubhouse:

"It's too easy to fall into thinking that 'women are this way and men are that way' – to simplify the categories and underplay all the contradictions and differences within each individual and within each gender. At the same time, it is misleading to see women as sharing no unifying experiences." (p. 9)

"Throughout our study, we have worked hard to capture both gender differences and also the wide range of often contradictory experiences women have." (p. 10)

But, I think that they do fall into thinking that "women are this way and men are that way." Much of the book is focused on gender differences rather than on how culture has led to women avoiding computer science. One of the claims they make is the following:

“To spark and engage girls' interest and engagement in computing, we believe that computer science must be viewed as a fully human discipline that, while highly technical, is linked to other arenas and people.” (p. 120)

When I was a freshman in the Freshman Immigration Course (FIC) which is discussed in Margolis and Fisher, we had a speaker come and talk to us. At the end of his talk he focused on getting women interested in CS and made the claim that most women go into CS because they want to apply it to another field. Every single woman and many of the men in that room was absolutely shocked and offended by this statement. Most of us wanted to pursue careers as Software Engineers because we like to code, not write software for hospitals because it helped people. And while it may be important to some people to know that what they study can be applied to the real world, it is not only women who feel that way, and it is certainly not the majority of women (at least at CMU).

This same sentiment is expressed in Margolis and Fisher, and I am offended by it. It seems very sexist and seems to imply that women can't or shouldn't pursue the traditional CS jobs at tech companies. All throughout the book I found this implication of gender differences being the cause of low female participation in CS and that is not what I believe is the main cause of women's low enrollment in CS.

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