Thursday, June 23, 2005

Women In Open Source and Software Development In General

Below is an article I read recently in Software Development Magazine. They have a nice project managment column every month, plus the editor in chief, Alexandra Weber Morales, writes some great editorials. I've quoted part of the article below. I was motivated to mention this article after Terrie M. of the Women Project Managers group in San Francisco and the Bay Area, posted a great article: It's A Woman's World, Too by Karen E. Klein (June 16, 2005, Projects@Work).


Software Development Magazine Logo

Women in Software: Open Source, Cold Shoulder; Explaining the Enthsiasm
Alexandra Weber Morales interview with Jane Margolis November 2004

"In software development, we find that women tend to be business analysts, QA/testers and project managers, while men tend to be software architects or developers."
In the seminal Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, principal investigators Allan Fisher and Jane Margolis described their research in understanding maleand female students' engagement with computer science. In addition, the changes they spurred in curriculum, pedagogy and culture had lasting effects on reducing the gender imbalance, causing the entering enrollment of women in the undergraduate computer science program at Carnegie Mellon to rise from 8 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2000. Now a research educationist at UCLA, Jane Margolis spoke with us about why computer science attracts men and repels women.

Is it true that those drawn to open source projects spend all their free time with the computer?

I don't feel comfortable talking about open source because it's not an area I'm familiar with. But I can say that the whole videogame industry has been designed by men for boys' and men's interests. The gaming has a particular character that reflects the stereotype of what males are interested in. It's through gaming, done at a very young age, that kids do a lot of experimentation and play, learn all the cheats, and learn from each other. That builds a lot more familiarity with computing and confidence. The friendship groups that form tend to mark the
computing arena as male.

But not all men want to spend all their time gaming.

There's this male norm based on a very small subset of men: "If you don't want to focus on the machine, you don't really belong in computer science." It's actually a very narrow concept of what CS is all about, with a very narrow focus on the machine, not the science of what it's about, the problem solving and the domains. There's a wonderful quote [attributed to Edsger Dykstra]: "Computer science is no more related to the computer than astronomy is related to the telescope."—the point being that the computer is just a tool to get to this larger science.

How does the ratio of women in computing compare to women in other sciences?

In math, the gap is not as big. There's been a lot of work to narrow it, and it's been effective. Biology is 50-50. In physics, the gap is still big. Engineering and computing are at the far end of the spectrum of male-dominated disciplines.

Why should we care?

Because computing, more than any other technology, is changing the way we live our lives. In the other scientific disciplines, whoever knows it has a leg up in their field.

In software development, we find that women tend to be business analysts, QA/testers and project managers, while men tend to be software architects or developers. Are the same forces causing those career choices?

I believe you're right in that. That's something that Women in Technology and [the late] Dr. Anita Borg are working on. My field has been in education. A whole other shakeout occurs at the work level—the culture of a place. There may be an assumption that you're not as suited. There again, I don't feel able to comment on all those workplace issues. But I've been invited to speak at Google in a few weeks. I think they're concerned about having more women engineers. We're speaking to several management groups and then the company as a whole.

Having been to Google, I've observed their perks: laundry, gourmet chef, games, and so on. But the implication is that you can never leave.

And that's very hard for mothers.

And is it really the best way to be innovative and productive?

In science, there's this whole culture about who's in the lab longest.

What is the "posse effect" noted in your research?

It's the issue of critical mass. When you have just one female or one African-American in a class, there's this incredible sense of isolation and discomfort, and the sense of comfort increases when you get a critical mass. I heard the term "posse effect" on National Public Radio. These universities that were mostly white had unfortunate experiences when recruiting one Latino or one African-American. They had much more success when recruiting entire groups. It showed the importance of not being alone, not being the only one—the effects of comfort and confidence. We don't know what the number is to get that critical mass, but at Carnegie Mellon, the cultural shift that the women felt was dramatic: You don't feel alone, you don't feel all eyes are on you.

What is your current research focus?

I'm now looking at high school. You can already see the divide that has happened. Youth culture is so saturated with technology now, but the gaming industry is still predominantly male. There's a huge gender gap: Now only 17 percent of AP computer science students are females—and African-Americans and Latinos combined make up only 6 to 7 percent. By high school, it's already set. It's tied in with issues of social class, access to technology, parents and families—it's a very complex constellation of effects. It also has to do with how, in schools, different subjects get claimed and identified. Computing is marked as a white/Asian/male field. Those are the role models that kids see.

What's the current fraction of women in Carnegie Mellon CS?

It's around 33 percent now. So to go from 8 percent to 33 percent is still pretty dramatic—and it's a much higher level of women than most CS programs.

Why did it drop from 42 percent?

I think it's due to the overall fall in computer science enrollment throughout the country in the last few years.

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