In my last post, I described how the experiences of women in CS have changed historically. In this post, we saw that the academic side of computer science is a relatively recent thing. For this post, I’d like to focus some more on that aspect of the history. Like that last post, this post will be specifically focusing on North American CS (we’ve seen previously that female participation in CS is different outside the West!).
Generational differences exist between female scientists in academia. Etzkowitz et al in a 1994 paper found differences in experiences and values between the trailblazing “First Generation” of women in a field, and the subsequent “Second Generation”. As the paper is now 20 years old, it’s not too surprising that it feels a bit out of date – what comes after the Second Generation? (Another dated thing about the paper is that CS is described as being as female-friendly as biology.)
The Etzkowitz et al paper studied 30 academic science departments (biology, chemistry, physics, CS, and electrical engineering). They went into the study interested in the notion of critical mass – whether having enough women in a department would lead to a positive feedback cycle leading to gender equality. (Answer: it’s not that simple.) In the process of studying critical mass, they found the women who had entered the field before it was attained (First Gen) had fundamentally different experiences than the women who entered after.
The trailblazing women who entered CS – or similar disciplines – when there were no other women in their departments learned to cope with the culture by adopting the “male model” of a scientist. These women generally did not have families, and for those that did, it took a clear backseat to their scientific careers.
In departments without other women, these trailblazers often encountered blatant sexism and harassment. This open sexism did not abate until a critical mass of women was reached and women not only had “safety in numbers” but men were more aware that this behaviour was inappropriate. Etzkowitz et al describe the critical mass as a “strong minority of at least 15%”. Note that in this statistic, they are referring to how many women are faculty and graduate students in a department – this does not include undergrads.
These trailblazers were often uneasy about forming Women in Science type clubs, sometimes refusing to participate out of fear of stigmatization by their male colleagues. These women, having fought tooth and nail for any status and accomplishments they have, were sometimes afraid that association with women’s movements would devalue their achievements. Instead of being viewed on par with the other men, they worried they would be judged only in the “women’s track”. (There are certainly women who have gone against this – Maria Klawe would be a clear example of a First Gen computer scientist who has been promoting women in CS clubs and conferences.)
A quote from the paper really sums up the First Gen – one senior female scientist participating in the study described her generation: “The ones who did [science] were really tough cookies. Now it’s easier to get in. At one time it wasn’t even acceptable to start. So if you started back then you were tough to begin with. I have quivering women coming through who are very smart asking can they compete with men, and can they compete on a very competitive, fierce playing field. Of course they can. They just are not taught to be competitive. They don’t expect to win. The reason why I am successful is because I never felt this way.”
Competitiveness was a large source of tension between these women and the Second Generation. In the mind of the First Gen, women need to adapt themselves to the man’s word – and need to be competitive. Second Gen women have instead favoured trying to change the culture to allow women who meet cultural notions of femininity: making the culture more friendly and collaborative.
Women who entered CS after critical mass was achieved had a very different experience coming into the field. Etzkowitz et al don’t provide timelines in their paper; from talking to female faculty in my department, I’d guess that this generation begins with the women who entered CS as undergraduates in the 80s.
These women tended to have high expectations about the (First Gen) female faculty in their departments, wanting their moral support and guidance for coping in a male-dominated culture. Often, they were disappointed. The Second Gen women wanted to have it all: to be women and scientists – and the First Gen women failed as role models in this regard.
For the Second Gen women who had First Gen women as advisors, there was tension. One Second Gen participant described: “[having a woman advisor] turned out to be somewhat of a mistake. I was under the impression that having a woman adviser would make life a bit easier… It turned out to be worse… Their motto is sink or swim… My adviser’s approach was to put it too far out of my grasp.“
First Gen women, as advisors, were extra hard on their female advisees, “to prepare them to meet the higher standards that they would be held to as women.” And as advisors, the First Gen women felt unable to help their advisees; as one participant put it, “They ask me when they should have children, can I take a part-time post-doc and then get back in? I don’t know [the answers]. I can’t help them.”
Most of the Women in CS/Science initiatives appear to have been started by Second Gen women, partly in response to the unhelpfulness of the First Gen women in terms of advising them about work-life balance and coping with a hostile, isolating work environment. And many Second Gen women left academia to look after their families, convinced that they would not be able to do both – if an academic career required conforming to the man’s world like the First Gen did, they decided they did not want to be a part of it.
As I noted already, the Etzkowitz et al paper was published 20 years ago. I took my first CS course in 2007, and for me and my cohort it was a very different experience than that of the Second Gen women. Approximately 20% of the CVS faculty at my alma mater are women, predominantly women of the Second Generation. They have families and the Focus on Women in Computer Science club was (and still is) highly visible and active. Personally, I’ve received a lot of invaluable mentorship and advice from Second Gen women.
My generation is far removed from the overt sexism that the First Gen experienced, and we don’t appear as worried about balancing a career with family. For a lot of us, these feel like problems of the past. Occasionally I’ll hear friends comment about Women in CS events that “I feel like the women running this are trying to make up for what they didn’t have when they were our age rather than what our generation wants.” The best Women in CS events seem to be the ones that take generational differences into account.
Growing up, girls of my generation performed equally well in science and math as boys (sometimes outperforming). For a lot of us – though hardly all – there was no expectation setting foot in a CS class for the first time that it would be unfriendly to women. My experience of undergraduate CS was that of a collaborative field. Personally, it wasn’t until graduate school that I felt I encountered gender-based barriers.
But despite many improvements in the culture, female enrollment in CS hasn’t improved a whole lot since hitting that 15% critical mass. Despite an uptick in the mid-80s, the numbers are now down to around 18%. Clearly, critical mass isn’t enough on its own to get female participation to 50%.
For biology, however, the numbers have been increasing – 53% of biology doctorates in the US in 2009 were given to women (Zuk & O’Rourke). (I’ve posted previously about why biology has more women than CS.) But as Zuk and O’Rourke caution: “First, demography alone has not solved the problem [of gender inequality] in the past. We frequently make presentations about gender and science to young audiences; since perhaps the early 1990s, a common response from graduate students to the concern about lack of female professors is that “their” cohort had not yet gone through the system. In other words, the students optimistically suggested, all we needed to do was wait for them to move into the academic job market in equivalent proportion to their numbers. Unfortunately, that has not occurred over the past few decades, and it is not likely to happen now. Although the landmark majority of female biology Ph.D.’s was reached only recently, the number of women in undergraduate and graduate programs in the life sciences has been increasing for the past several decades.”
Subtle, social-psychological barriers still remain in the scientific community (see: Moss-Racusin et al, Steinpreis et al, Knobloch-Westerwick et al, Heilman et al). It’s unlikely that biology or any other science will get to having 50% female faculty until these barriers are gone. In a previous post I talked about how the key to changing stereotypes about women is to get people to see women as heterogeneous – generational differences are just one way that women in CS are heterogeneous.