Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Gender differences in IT

I've been reading a lot of the postings across various blogs recently about the challenges that women entering IT face, even in librarianship, which is otherwise dominated by women. I'm not going to bother linking to all of the various posts that I've read, or commented on; they're not hard to find. I'm going to tell a story (which I do a lot of).

I'm not sure how many people cited Margolis and Fisher's Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing, but enough did that I checked it out from MPOW. One of the interesting things that they report as a common thread through all the women undergraduates that they spoke to was the fact that even women that were doing very well in computer science (to the point of being on the dean's honor list in some cases) didn't feel that they were doing as well as some of their male classmates. I have my own anecdote to add to the weight of their evidence.

When I was in high school, one of my good female friends always felt very insecure about her mathematical skills. She took, and passed, calculus, but always felt that math and she didn't get along that well. We lost touch when we went to different universities, but reconnected after university when we were both living in Toronto with our respective partners. Over dinner one night, she told us all that she had been going through some boxes that she'd finally moved out of her mother's house, and had come across all her high school report cards. She was amazed to discover that she had consistently earned As in all of the mathematics classes that she took. She could only remember her insecurity, and basically "ignored" or didn't recognize the objective evidence of the grades that she was getting. She knew that she was bad at math, and only the distance of time could give her the ability to read the grade and acknowledge that she must have been good at it.

And now I can see how her behaviour was not unique to her, but was part of a pattern of behaviour that women seem to more prone to than men (at least according to the information gathered by Margolis and Fisher). Margolis and Fisher declare that women switching majors out of computer science (or technology in general) to other fields cannot be simply treated as "their choice", but is an institutional problem that must be addressed by the institution. My friend who is a faculty member in Engineering (and the "artist in residence" for the Civil Engineering department) is actively involved in the Go Eng Girl program in the province, to encourage high school girls to continue in technology, so I like to think that my school is working at addressing this issue, and I'll be telling her to read Margolis and Fisher, as soon as I'm finished.

(Unfortunately, I also remember the "I want to be an engineer, just like my mom!" recruiting posters from when I was an undergraduate twenty years ago, and the engineering society that paraded "Lady Godiva" through campus at the same time.)

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