It’s Not Gender Warfare… It’s Math.

(A shorter version of this piece appears in today’s Washington Post. Photo of Google executive and engineer Marissa Mayer via. Headline via.)

Let’s say I was designing a new piece of software to make my life as a writer a little easier. First, I’d program it count how many characters I’d typed out and in what amount of time, in order to document my productivity on any given day. Then I’d ask it to compare words, phrases, sentences and entire paragraphs from one draft to the next, in order to calculate how much of what I’d written had changed…or stayed the same.

This software, which I’ll call Grammar School, would allow me to record, and discover, patterns in my lifestyle choices and compare them to the quantity and quality of my output: What I’d eaten (and when) before I started writing; how many hours of sleep I’d enjoyed the night before; how much caffeine and alcohol I’d imbibed in the 24-48 hours prior. Did I work better with contacts out or glasses on? Had I showered that day? How many emails had come in during my most (and least) productive periods? How many times had I toggled over to Twitter, and how many instant messages had popped up on my screen while I wrote?

If I was feeling really ambitious, I’d incorporate a webcam component into my creation that would be able to monitor and record data as to the size of my pupils (big = excited and stimulated; small = anxious and immobilized) and how many times I had gazed plaintively at my monitor or rolled my eyes at my own inertia.

Would this software help make me a better, more productive writer? I doubt it; as far as I know, the process and craft of writing is not something you can improve on with data collection and analysis. But I’ll probably never find out, because, like so many millions of American women, I have no idea how to program a computer.

The gender disparities in the United States’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce are disturbing. According to a report released last month by the Department of Commerce, although females fill almost half of the jobs in the American economy, less than 25% of jobs in STEM fields are held by women. Even worse, female representation in computer science and math — the largest of the 4 STEM components — has declined over the years, from 30% in 2000 to 27% in 2009. These disparities are not only stifling America’s technological creativity — numerous studies have shown that diversity in the workplace promotes innovation — they’re a menace to the very future of the country.

“This is a national crisis,” Nancy Ramsey, a futurist and co-author of The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century, tells me. She sounds appalled. She has every right to be. In 2005, Ramsey, along with a fellow researcher, released a report for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology that looked into gender imbalances in information technology. Six years later, she says, not much has changed, and the lack of women in computer science is not only limiting the country’s creative and entrepreneurial output, it’s undermining the strength of our economy, and, by extension, our national security.

“The country is not responding,” says Ramsey, who wishes the situation was taken as seriously as the space race of the 1950s and 60s. (Her husband is Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart.) “Tom Friedman jumps up and down daily about the state of the economy; Fareed Zakaria had a special on jobs on CNN but I don’t think either one of them have talked about the need for more people to be in technology, especially women and girls.” (According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of computer scientists is expected to grow a whopping 24% between 2008-2018, which the Bureau says is “much faster” than average for most occupations. Rebecca Blank, Acting Secretary at the Commerce Department, tells me that because of this increased need, the participation of more women will keep the industry – and, by extension, the country – globally competitive in the long run.) Says Ramsey’s co-author, Pamela McCorduck, “What has really changed is competition from abroad. You care about your country, you do everything you can.”

These realities have significant implications for the economy on a more micro-level: Women in traditionally well-paying STEM jobs, particularly computer science, enjoy more wage parity with men than in other occupations. The disparities also have long-reaching cultural and social ramifications. Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher for the American Academy of University Women (AAUW) and co-author of the 2010 report Why So Few?, is blunt: “The growth of technology is driven by the people who are designing it. Without women at the design table, the interests of half the population will be basically be ignored.” Adds Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the University of Colorado’s National Center for Women & Information Technology: “We don’t know what women would invent because by and large right now, they are not.”

“Coming from a feminist viewpoint, the people who are developing technology are the ones with the power,” says Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher and author of the June 2011 paper Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity With Gender Identity. Skaggs points to the part that female automobile engineers played in designing airbags that did not seriously injure or kill female drivers and passengers, who, along with children, were disproportionately affected by exploding airbags after they were first introduced in the 1970s. As documented in the 2003 book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, it turns out that automobile development teams, which were usually more than 90% male, were not only overlooking women’s interests, they were using only male crash test dummies.

It starts young. Although girls have achieved meaningful parity with boys in test scores and college degrees in math and science, the message is sent (and early on) that embracing these subjects, either before or after high school graduation, is anathema to what it means to be female. (Mainstream Hollywood movies about technology innovation that relegate females to sexualized accessory status don’t help matters. Neither do sexist comments made by high-profile Ivy League university presidents or pink T-shirts for tweens that advertise messages like “Allergic to Algebra”.)

“We are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be smart in math or do I want to be seen as attractive?’” says Skaggs. “If a female is seen as technically competent, she is assumed to be socially incompetent. And it works the other way around.” (Skaggs adds that, of the many people she’s spoken to during the course of her research, “probably 75% of the males” said that they didn’t want to date a girl smarter than them.)

Maresa Leto, 19, a sophomore at Michigan State taking her first computer science course this semester, remembers this well. “I think it’s just part of what teenage girls are taught, which is to act dumb and cutesy so they don’t intimidate guys,” says Leto, whose older sister, tech entrepreneur Lauren Leto, urged her to give programming a try. “Girls would lie about the grades they got so as not to seem nerdy. I don’t know…there was a taboo about it.” As for the computer science class she’s taking, she says that she is one of a handful of females in the majority-male class. “No one has commented on the gender disparity in my class but I am conscious of it. I try to seem smarter than I actually am, just to prove I belong there.”

Cultural expectations of femininity and peer pressures are enormous influences, but they can be overcome by even the seemingly smallest of attitude adjustments. Corbett of AAUW recommends that students, especially girls, be taught to adopt a growth mindset, which is to say, to look at academic achievement as something that can be cultivated. Girls with this mindset, she says, are not only more likely to do better on math tests but continue to take more math and science-related courses in the future.

Lenore Blum, the founder of Expanding Your Horizons Network and a Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon has studied gender breakdowns in the technology industry both here and abroad, and says that in countries like Malaysia and Qatar, one of the biggest factors contributing to higher percentages of women in tech is the microculture they inhabit. She points to a study done in Israel and published in 2006 in which researcher Orit Hazan compared female students taking AP-level computer science courses at Hebrew-speaking schools and Arabic-speaking schools. The percentage of girls in the CS program in the Hebrew-speaking schools was at about 28%, comparable to that in a suburban U.S. public school at the time. (Females currently make up 19% of American AP computer science test takers.)  The Arabic-speaking schools however, had 61% female involvement. “In the Jewish community, the peer pressure [against girls in tech] was stronger than the influence coming from parents and teachers,” she says. “In the Arab community, the parents and teachers were the biggest influences. They saw proficiency in technology as a way for their girls to achieve upward mobility.”

If only that were the case for the United States, whose educational system appears to suffer from a pathological and inexplicable aversion to providing the sorts of computer science courses that would pique interest among girls and boys. “K through 12 computing education in this country is horrible,” says Sanders. “Most high school seniors today graduate with no sense of what computing as a creative discipline is about. We can’t attract more people into the high school level if they’re not teaching it and teaching it well.”

Blum says that, in the 1990s, thanks to a program in which AP computer science teachers attended summer programs that discussed issues of gender representation, Carnegie Mellon saw a huge jump in the number of women applying to the university’s computer science department. “Working with the teachers was very critical,” she says. “They were the influencers.” That program, like many others with similar objectives, was later defunded.

If, and when, young women do get into the technology workforce, the pressures don’t exactly let up. Although none of the female engineers I spoke with described explicitly hostile treatment while working in and around tech, many did acknowledge being acutely conscious of the low numbers of women — and, by extension, female mentors — around them. (Telle Whitney, president of the Anita Borg Institute, says that, according a study her organization conducted, although around 21% of entry level computer engineers are female, by the time you get to the top level, that number declines to 5%.)

McCorduck says that even workplaces that seem to fully embrace their female staffers can have a detrimental effect in terms of lowered expectations for men.  “When I knew I was going to talk to you I asked around informally to people about the state of women in tech and heard one person say, ‘Well yeah, of course, my best project managers are women — I can’t let those [male] animals around my customers.’” She pauses. “Why aren’t the guys required to be totally on top of it technically and have social skills?”

Media representations don’t help either. Today, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media will release a study conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on occupational representations and gender in G-rated films. The study, titled Occupational Aspirations: What Are G-Rated Films Teaching Children About The World of Work?, reports that between 2006-2009 there were zero depictions of female characters involved in any sort of STEM career in children’s [childrens’?] movies. (A bigger study, which will look at all of popular television and film between 2006-2010, will be released by the Institute next year.) And despite efforts on the part of magazines like Fast Company and Wired to showcase more female tech talent, it’s a lot more common to see stories like this month’s “Bubble Boys” feature in New York Magazine, which showcased no fewer than four young, ambitious computer programmers, all of them male. “That article was written through a narrow lens that took more than one cue from The Social Network,” griped one woman on a private women in tech listserv I belong to. “When will folks get tired of the computer engineers boys club?” asked another.

There are some indications that they already are. The listserv I mention above — created by Rachel Sklar — is one example where pushback against the current state of the U.S. tech industry — and support for women who are within it— is freely given. Sklar, a writer and founder of Change the Ratio, which seeks to raise access and opportunity for women in tech, says 2011 has been a pivotal year for women in terms of visibility in tech on both the engineering and entrepreneurial sides. On October 11, Glamour magazine will host a private panel discussion called “Where Are All The Women In Tech?” (The event, which will also feature Microsoft engineer Julie Larson-Green and data scientist Hilary Mason of, is the first of its kind the magazine has put on.) “We wanted to help demystify an industry that is often thought of as off-limits to women,” says the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Cindi Leive. “There are, in fact, already many great female minds in the tech sector, and we want to see a lot more in the near future.”

And then there are the enrollment numbers in computer science, which are starting beginning to pick up. Lenore Blum tells me that Carnegie Mellon’s freshman class of computer science majors this year is 32% female, a jump of 6 percentage points from 2010. (Stanford University’s numbers are lower: 18% from 2009-2010 and a projected 20% for 2010-2011.) “Around a third is when you have critical mass - it changes the atmosphere in everything,” she says. “I don’t want it viewed as an aspiration; it’s not 50%. But it starts to be enough that you don’t have the phenomena of being a minority. For me, personally, it does make a difference.”


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