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Why we need fewer men in computer science

12 May 2021| doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4745988

There have been calls for more women in computer science for decades, but so far nothing has changed. Therefore, we claim that it is time to invert the call: we need fewer men in computer science! And here’s why.

An article by Mareike Lisker & Verena Irrgang


There have been calls for more diversity, especially more women in computer science for decades. These calls have become so frequent and partially so loud that we are sure many women have heard them. And still, nothing has changed over the past years.[1] 

It has become apparent that it is not enough to only appeal to women and their motivation. Therefore, we claim it is time to invert the call: WE NEED FEWER MEN IN COMPUTER SCIENCE! (To every reader who feels offended right now – please remain seated and hear us out.[2])

Entering computer science

To begin with, the two of us have successfully answered the original call: we studied computer science, as women.[3] We have thus overcome the barriers to entry into the field which mostly manifest themselves at an early age.

We only want to mention the barriers to entry in passing, as they should not be disregarded: One of them is that young girls rarely receive encouragement at home or in school to confidently approach computers. Another one is how ‘computery’ toys such as Lego robots are inherently ‘doing gender’ and by their design address boys rather than girls. A third one is the persistent stereotype threat posed by the mistaken belief that girls are not good in Math. A fourth reason that discourages girls from appropriating computers is … you get the point.

More barriers to come

The fact that we overcame the barriers to entry could be the happy ending to our story, because in our case the efforts to attract more women to computer science seem to have paid off. However, we believe that efforts should not stop at this point, as they will easily be undone if these women feel out of place. 

Thus, instead of examining the barriers to entry, we want to inspect the field from the inside and focus on the barriers to stay that we came across during our studies at the Technical University Berlin. We started off in 2015, and from the students at the faculty 84,32% were male. Today, only one of us held ground in computer science. However, the other one might re-enter again and give the impostor syndrome the finger.

Change a running system

Already during our studies, we constantly pointed out instances of gender discrimination to our fellow students and teachers – not necessarily as a debate on principles, but rather in terms of sexist examples they used. While we believe in small changes, there is still a long way to go. Besides, it’s not our job to educate men on feminism full-time, and for the record, it’s a pretty inefficient approach. 

Instead, we want to redistribute the workload to achieve gender equality onto the shoulders of men as well, since they are also responsible for changing the unequal status quo. That’s why we argue for our much broader idea, which is faster and more scalable. And like all computer scientists, we just love speed and scalability. 

Now, let’s have a closer look at why we think we need fewer men in computer science. Join us on our four quests to find out what’s currently going wrong and receive a level up!

Quest 1: The invisible (dis-)encouragement

We love computer science. But from the beginning we noticed that others doubted our abilities. We don’t think that we are isolated cases. Instead, we believe that this is a reason why so many women turn away from the field – even after having studied it successfully. It is because we want to study and work in a field we feel good in. And we feel good at something if we receive encouraging feedback.

We asked a few men …

… in what situations they felt encouraged to continue their engagement in IT. Turns out, they don’t really care what people think. Sometimes, they don’t even finish their degree, because, who needs that paper wipe anyways?

This seemingly unpretentious attitude is not surprising to us. If you don’t experience a lack of recognition, you don’t always realize that you actually receive it. If you do experience a lack though, you are very aware of the uneven distribution. You have to actively fight to achieve recognition and sometimes even glue your broken self esteem back together.

Buffer overflow

Imagine yourself surrounded by men who normally interact with women by explaining the mysterious world of technology to them. Or by men who are ignoring you (which could be a way of proving their postmodern indifference to gender, or because they simply don’t know how to befriend female peers). Or by men who feel the strong urge to tell you they once had a really StUpiD GiRL in their homework group, but that you are different …

For us, this meant constantly being (made) aware of our gender. Constantly being occupied with processing the lack of recognition, always overthinking what we were about to say as to not sound ‘stupid’, or risk being corrected by a hunter of mansplaining opportunities.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that it’s us women calling out gender discrimination, rather than our male peers. So here is reason one to why we need fewer men in computer science: 

it is unjust that the existence of this discrimination is invisible to the majority, while the minority is constantly burdened by it.

Quest 2: George and the rules of recognition

There was one particularly striking boy in our year, let’s call him George. George would usually sit in the first row, surrounded by peers, always talking with them, during class, in room volume. You can probably imagine how irritating that was. 

Now, except for us, we noticed nobody else calling out this annoying behaviour, especially not the teachers. Why? Because despite being so absorbed in his conversations, he always knew the answer to the most difficult questions. It almost seemed as if he enjoyed social immunity because of his intelligence. 

This indicates the rules of recognition at play in computer science: what or who gets recognised as valuable depends exclusively on the technical, the analytical, the knowledge. And blessed are the gifted.

Ok, but why care about George?

We write about George, because seeing the way our teachers treated him made us feel like there are people who “just have it”, that natural gift of technical understanding. Instead of sanctioning his behaviour, they even seemed relieved when he laughed at their jokes, because that proved they were just as much part of the “Just-Have-Its”.

Such an environment can be very hostile to women, who are taught from childhood to behave the opposite of George, and to be considerate of the people around them. Beware, we don’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes here or claim that ‘women are simply the more communicative ones’.[4] But we do want to point out that even if we had tried to behave like George, we still wouldn’t have been recognised by the teachers in the same way.

Pff, you really think so?

For example, one of us got feedback after a presentation that there was really no need for her to be so insecure as her knowledge was remarkable (which was meant to be encouraging). The teachers could have perceived her performance the same as George’s: intelligent, and, oh my, a bit socially awkward – who cares! But they judged her as being insecure, without asking how she actually felt. In other words, they chose to patronize her instead of giving her the same privileges George has.[5]

To get to the point, this is the second reason why we need fewer men in computer science: 

male teachers can hardly relate to which extent technical understanding is not naturally given at all, as they ‘naturally’ received it qua being socialized as a boy.

Quest 3:  alert(‘nerd alert’);

Much has been said about the nerdy image of computer scientists and how it excludes female students. Our problem with this image is not our FeAr of LoSiNg our FeMiniNiTy, as some research suggests. We even see positive aspects, as nerd culture can be inclusive for trans people. Moreover, the computer science community has fewer classist exclusion mechanisms than other disciplines precisely because of its nerd culture. It’s all about knowing whether two horn blows mean ‘wildlings’ or ‘white walkers’ and bringing along a certain enthusiasm for black hoodies and Mate.

Code of conduct

Nevertheless, this nerdy image was fulfilled by the large part of our fellow students and thus they shared some sort of common background. They had a common idea of how to behave, how to communicate with each other, of what is socially recognised and what isn’t. They had their own code of conduct. And there was little willingness to deviate from it. Maybe, they feared that letting in ‘different and unknown’ people who don’t fulfill the nerd requirements would eventually destroy their safe space. A space where they could finally be among their own kind, left alone by the ‘outside world’.

Late bloomers

Thus, not sharing this background made us feel deficient. And as such, nerd culture has not been inviting to us. Admittedly, we were late bloomers in our entanglement with the world of swords and spaceships and didn’t take all of it seriously. Maybe we would have, if we would have been invited to LAN parties by one of the boys. We would have played a great warrior with even greater boobs by their side. 

But that would not have been necessary at all, if our own background would have been equally recognised. This leads us to reason three for why we need fewer men in computer science:

(male) nerd culture dominates computer sciences and fears to include new voices

Quest 4: role models

Since everyone is bemoaning the lack of role models as a reason for gender inequality in computer science: we did have a few female teachers. To be precise, two out of eleven of our computer science professors were female. And even though that’s a small number and close to the percentage of female students in our year, we were thrilled. These female professors were living proof that women are computer scientists, too! 

On the other hand, a whole weight seemed to rest on their shoulders. Besides being genuine scientists, they also functioned as role models, as tokens, and as projection areas – not just for our longing for a positive identification, but also for misogynistic ideas. In lectures, we witnessed our fellow male students making condescending, even sexist remarks about them. Once eavesdropped on misogynistic gossip like that, it certainly gets harder to identify with ‘such an embarrassing wench’, because who wishes to be degraded like that? Thus, this is reason four for why we need fewer men in computer science:

men undermine a positive identification with our meant-to-be role model

Level up

Bravo! You have solved the four quests and earned a level up!


tl;dr

We argue for the idea that we need fewer men in computer science. We give four reasons for that: 1) It is unjust that the existence of the gender discrimination is invisible to the majority, while the minority is constantly burdened by it; 2) Male teachers can hardly relate to which extent technical understanding is not naturally given at all, as they ‘naturally’ received it qua being socialized as a boy; 3) (Male) nerd culture dominates computer science and fears to include new voices; and 4) Men undermine a positive identification with our meant-to-be role models.


Verena Irrgang studies computer science (M.Sc.) at Technical University Berlin. Besides, she works in an IT-collective and does IT support for the TU AStA.


References

[1]  It is interesting to note that gender inequality in CS is not a global phenomenon and that capitalismseems to have a major impact on that. However, in this blogpost we approach the matter bottom-up and look at our personal experience as the starting point for a critical analysis, enriched with research that looks at gender inequality in Western countries.
[2] For starters, think about it: why would it be offensive to call for gender equality in computer science?
[3] When we talk about ‘women’ we mean anyone who identifies as a woman. We are aware that people don’t identify with either ‘male’ or ‘female’. Here we will only talk about these two categories, as they have mainly influenced our female cisgender experience. However, we are curious about your experiences if you have a different gender perspective. Comment, write to us!
[4] This gender stereotype could, btw, be a reason for why when women work as computer scientists, they often work as front-end developers in web design. Whereas, e.g., the field of cyber security is highly dominated by men, who need to (obviously!) protect and defend the system from vicious attack by the enemy.
[5] Apart from that, this example also shows what kind of behaviour is recognised as ‘strong’ and ‘confident’, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact info@hiig.de.

Mareike Lisker

Former Student Assistant: Data, Actors, Infrastructure

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