I’ve long been interested in why, despite so much organized effort, there percentage of women in CS has been so stagnant. One hypothesis I had for some time was that the efforts themselves were unintentionally counter-productive: that they reinforced the gender subtyping of “female computer scientist” being separate from unmarked “computer scientists”.
I was excited earlier this week when Siobhan Stevenson alerted me to this unpublished thesis from OISE: “Women in Computing as Problematic” by Susan Michele Sturman (2009).
In 2005-6, Sturman conducted an institutional ethnography of the graduate CS programmes at two research-intensive universities in Ontario. In institutional ethnography, one starts by “reading up”: identifying those who have the least power and interviewing them about their everyday experiences. From what the interviews reveal, the researcher then goes on to interview those identified as having power over the initial participants.
Interested in studying graduate-level computer science education, she started with female graduate students. This led her to the women in computing lunches and events, interviewing faculty members and administrators at those two universities. She also attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and analysed the texts and experiences she had there. Her goal was to understand the “women in computing” culture.
In the style of science studies scholars like Bruno Latour, Sturman comes to the organized women in computing culture as an outsider. As a social scientist, she sees things differently: “Women in the field wonder what it is about women and women’s lives that keeps them from doing science, and feminists ask what it is about science that leads to social exclusion for women and other marginalized groups”
Why I’m writing this summary
Sadly, the thesis was never published. Sturman has since left academia and presently works as a high school teacher. I think the CS education community would benefit from hearing her findings. It’s worth noting upfront that Sturman is a poststructuralist: her goal is to problematize and deconstruct what she sees – not to test any hypothesis.
The thesis is not an easy read. It’s a whopping 276-page read and took me about four hours. If you want to read it, but don’t want to read the whole thing, I suggest reading the last two chapters.
I feel I only managed to get through it because I’ve taken courses from OISE on social theory. The thesis is extremely theoretical, and assumes the reader is fluent with the works of Dorothy Smith, Chandra Mohanty, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, Bruno Latour, Thomas Kuhn, Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Acker, Judith Butler, Carol Gilligan, Donna Haraway, Judy Wajcman, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Because the thesis has never been cited and it presents a very valuable perspective, I’m going to spend this blog post summarizing her findings. Where possible I’ll try to use Sturman’s own words, to foreground her own analysis.
Women in Computing Lunches in the 80s
The formal women in computing (WIC) lunches that Sturman attended have an interesting history. Female graduate students in the 80s felt the need “to come together for communication and support” amidst a “chilly climate” in their departments.
For context, the 80s were a time when feminists were turning their attention to academia; women were organizing groups to draw attention to “women’s issues”, such as campus safety, sexual harassment, and workplace discrimination. These efforts were rooted in second wave feminism.
The informal lunches and dinners in the 80s were “a student-initiated intervention to ‘help people in the program’”. As time went on, these female CS grad students became more activist. Some of these women went on to “present a report to the university about improving the ‘climate’ for women in science. Among the local concerns for women in Computer Science at the university was building at campus safety at night when they worked late in labs”.
Women in Computing Lunches in the 00s
Sturman spends a fair bit of time contrasting the lunches from the 80s with their form as she saw them in 2005-06. These lunches were now formal gatherings, organized by computer science departments. They had become institution-led rather than student-led, with a goal of keeping women enrolled in CS.
The faculty who organized the lunches described the goal as “to create community …. [she] recalled her own experience as a graduate student when the few women in Computer Science and Engineering bonded informally in order to actively improve the chilly climate for women in their departments (Prentice, 2000). However, the institutional creation of ‘community’ sets formal boundaries that both constraint [sic] and enable practice.”
Many of the graduate students in the 00s felt they had “nothing in common” with the other women at these lunches: “there was no inherent commonality to the group based on gender, other than the fact that they were all women, and all together ‘in the same room’. …. The diversity of their countries of origin, their educational backgrounds, their family responsibilities (or not) and many other aspects of their lives often made the idea of shared ‘experience’ seem alien to them.’
The concerns of the women at these lunches was also different than in the 80s: discussion focused on individual choices and satisfaction, rather than workplace conditions. Rhetoric at the lunches was consistent with what we’d now call “Lean In” culture: trying to improve the psychology of the women there (promote yourself! etc) than make structural change.
Ironically, these lunches “often had a negative effect upon [the female grad students’] self-perceptions and upon their hopes to help implement change” – the lunches did not “encourage graduate student participation in any comprehensive plan to change the male-dominate ‘culture of computing’ […] Rather, it seemed to students that the existence of the group and the funding of ‘get-togethers’ served as the main commitment of the department (and of university administrative resources) to gender equity, though both universities were concerned abut the declining enrolment of both male and female students in undergraduate Computer Science.”
The female grad students in the 00s who did want to make change at their institutions instead found other avenues, such as undergrad affairs committees, or labour unions, more productive than the WIC lunches. This work, and that of the female faculty running the WIC lunches, was seen sometimes a burden by the women doing it. It took time and emotional energy for which they were not compensated. Many of the female students noted that they had to be careful how much work they did promoting women in CS; if they were seen as doing “too much” they anticipated it would hurt their job prospects.
As CS departments embraced numerical-based goals for diversity, the female graduate students felt like they were used by their institutions to meet these institutional diversity goals: “To S and some of the other students … the ‘women in computing’ groups seemed a position of powerlessness. In such a position, they felt subjectified as ‘women in computing’ for special interest from the university but with little direct power in effecting institution change where gender inequity was identified”.
As for the community building, one participant stated that “I don’t really feel a huge need for a sort of a… support group”. The lunches were seen more as a networking opportunity. Some women “disidentified with the problems other women talked about, and were depressed by or disinterested in warnings about ‘toxins’ that they as yet did not detect”. As one participant put it, “the stories [at the lunches] will just depress me [if I go].”
The young women were often ambivalent about these lunches and other WIC initiatives, feeling uncomfortable about receiving “special treatment”. One participant worried it would seem “‘unfair’ to her male colleagues”. Other women described receiving “special treatment” in as undermining their identities as independent and self-made computer scientists.
Women’s Work in Computing
Participating in women’s lunches and presenting research at women’s conferences contrasted with the “gender-neutral” activities that women in CS must also partake in. Women felt pressure both to go to ordinary (male-dominated yet “gender-netural”) conferences as well as to present research at the women’s conferences.
As Sturman put it: “for the women graduate students in Computer Science who participated in this study, the university practice of ‘gender equity’ means negotiating the contradictory position of attending to institutional demands for individuated ‘gender neutral’ scholarly performance in competition with peers for external and internal awards, jobs and research recognition while at the same time being hailed to affiliate with the ‘community’ of ‘women in computing’. Through these intersecting discourses, for many of these students, the sign of ‘feminism’ seems more a set of institutional rules and boundaries for gender performance and identity management than a relevant activist project.”
At the same time, Sturman observed that certain subfields and activities in CS have become seen as “female-friendly” because they are seen as having more social relevancy and collaborative work. These areas include software engineering, human-computer interaction, computational linguistics, as well as the practice of teaching. Sturman also noted a perception of these areas being less mathematical, reflecting gender stereotypes that women don’t like math.
Sturman challenges the categorization of these areas as “female-friendly” – the assumption that social relevancy and collaboration (and less math) are suitable for women reflects outdated and harmful stereotypes of women.
The institutional culture at both universities Sturman studied valued the more masculine, abstract subfields of CS. Areas like SE and HCI were not seen as “real” computer science and given less respect. Teaching-track faculty were not seen as doing as contributing equally to the department as research faculty. Indeed, teaching track jobs were described as more suitable for women so they wouldn’t have to be burdened by research and “you look after your children”.
Work/Life Balance as Problematic
The discourse of “work-life balance” appears frequently in the women in computing arena. Sturman viewed this in terms of gender performance: “[a female grad student being interviewed talked] as she showed me pictures of herself and her boyfriend on a camping trip as evidence of her successful performance of ‘work-life balance’. The successful management of ‘work-life balance’ is a workshop topic at many ‘women in computing’ events. In contradictory interaction with the intensification of institutional performance of the self, it is often an almost impossible feat for young women (and men) who are entering the CS/IT workforce, whether in the academy or in industry. Proof of the accomplishment of work-life balance, or of attempts to self-improve in that direction, is an important part of ‘women in computing’ discourse.”
Furthermore: “The illusory goal of work/life balance … moves ‘women in computing’ discourse away from political activity for better material working conditions to an individualized psychology-based call to improve behaviour and attitudes (both personal and institutional). … by embracing ‘work/life balance’, which reinscribes heteronormative “family life” […] [and] stands in binary gendered relation to an undesired identification with the work-obsessed male ‘nerd’ who has ‘no life’.”
“This discourse plays in contradictory relation to the discourse of ambition, which implies that women need to improve themselves by being more attentive to public recognition and career advancement. Demands for the recognition of work/life balance issues are considered in the dominant male CS culture as a ‘personal choice’ to take a less committed (and therefore less materially compensated) role at work; this is also true for men in CS who want to take a more active role in parenting. The self-improvement discourse of ‘women in computing’ posits work/life balance as yet another performance indicator, suggesting that women should strive for high performance goals in both work and family life. This discourse seemed a contradictory and exhausting path for many of the women faculty members I interviewed, who balanced the demanding research performance that was expected of them at their universities with a heavy teaching and service workload and, in some cases, young children as well.”
Sturman then spends some time analyzing the recommendations from CRA-W for faculty interested in increasing female participation in their classes, identifying how these texts focus “on the individualized promotion of ‘choice’ and ‘career satisfaction’ away from any analysis of a need for structural change.”
Marketing the “Woman in Computer Science”
Another theme of WIC events that Sturman observed was workshops and advice on how to market one’s self as a woman in computer science. Here, “an aestheticized anti-geek self-identity is encouraged as a marketable commodity for women seeking CS/IT careers”.
In trying to combat the stereotype of computer scientists as male geeks, WIC culture presents women in computing as hyperfeminine. These idealized women are young, attractive, have “soft skills”, and also can balance work and life. Sturman spends some time analyzing the promotional material for Grace Hopper. These posters (at the time of analysis) always showed young pretty women, usually white. The posters never show the “old faces” of computing: white men and Asian women and men.
The frequent suggestions that young women need “role models” serves to communicate to young women what kind of woman they should become in order to be a woman in computing. The graduate students that Sturman interviewed reported having to carefully present their identities, to try to further their careers.
While at Grace Hopper, Sturman observed how much the celebration has become a place for tech companies to recruit women. Many of the women recruited to these tech companies are later paced into non-technical managerial positions.
One session at Grace Hopper that Sturman attended was entitled “Embrace your duality as an Asian woman to lead” and its abstract adversities “We will brainstorm how to leverage our gender strength to excel, and to embrace our cultural advantage to lead!” At the session, Asian women were taught to treat their identity as a commodity. Universities are seeking to attract more “international students” and companies more “migrant Asian IT worker” – labels which serve to treat these women as outsiders, rather than North Americans.
Networking at Grace Hopper
Sturman’s research brought her to Grace Hopper. Her first impressions are clear: a focus on “the contested concept of numeric equality” in CS, and how the choice of naming the conference after a military scientist “provides a backdrop to the many intersecting contradictions in this milieu, where academic, corporate and military interests converge to produce the organizing texts forming the category of ‘women in computing’ as a target group for inclusion, marketing and co-optation.”
She finds a paradox at the celebration: the “North American Second Wave liberal feminist belief in ‘universal sisterhood’” is present at the same time as neoliberal political and economic practices. Neoliberal political/economics refer to the decentralization of the State and the decollectivization of the workplace – or as their proponents would put it, making the workforce more “flexible”, and workers more “independent”.
For the female students who attended, the main pull was networking with other women in the field, and with the large tech companies who recruit there. The older generation’s goals of universal sisterhood were not shared with the young: “there was little or no identification with networking as a method of establishing solidarity or group affiliation as ‘women’; most understood the practice as instrumental in the establishment of professional contacts, but little more”.
Personally, I’ve had people recommend that I attend Grace Hopper so that I can “network with the Ol’ Gal’s Club” – the conference has established a network of high-achieving women to rival the Ol’ Boys Club of computer science, rather than dismantle the club-based system.
Female Friendly Education?
A particular session stood out for Sturman, titled “‘Female Friendly Education: Increasing Participation or Watering Down?’ provoked a heated response from audience members, many of whom were university students and professors. The topic unexpectedly made clear how the insertion of diverse women into a generalized female identity in ‘women in computing’ or ‘female friendly Computer Science’ is extremely problematic, constituting a unitary subject which also produces those it does not include as marginal. Among the panelists, Sue Rosser, a feminist scholar of science at Georgia Tech, had coined the term ‘female friendly science’ (1990) to signify a new approach to university science education which would take into account how science is gendered and would seek to redirect values and practices in scientific work to reflect the interests and experiences of women as well as men.”
“Certainly, in the group of female graduate CS students I interviewed, the majority resisted the characteristics ascribed to them in a ‘female friendly’ Computer Science approach, characteristics which positioned them as gendered subjects, read as less competent and less able in relation to the dominant unmarked male subject of Computer Science. The panelists presented their questions to the audience in an attempt to get feedback about why ‘third wave’ (their term) feminists and younger CS women in general responded negatively to the term ‘female friendly…”
“The practices of ‘female friendly’ science assemble a subject which is the Other, as the term ‘female friendly science’ itself acknowledges that the discipline of science limits the right of women to participate in its laws of discourse. Thus ‘female friendly science’ performs a reinscription of social exclusion. The existing forms of scientific discourse, or what the presenters described as masculinized STEM values, ‘an emphasis on truth, beauty and puzzles’, determine the limits by which femininized values of ‘time spent on community and social impact’ can be uttered as a ‘truth’ about women through the gender binary.”
Retraditionalizing the Gender Binary
Indeed, much of the rhetoric Sturman observed at Grace Hopper served to reinforce the gender binary. “Throughout the conference, there was a lot of talk about countering the geek image, supported by print and visual media; essentialized female identity appeared to shut out those who didn’t conform.”
Much of the motivation for recruiting more women in to CS “reflected concern that young women will be ‘left behind’ because they are not pursuing Computer Science or IT as career paths; this is produced through a discourse of fear that America will be left behind in the face of global IT competition, particularly that coming from Asia. In the media representations at Grace Hopper, young women at the conference are heavily encouraged to be leaders in the field, icons for innovation, change, diversity, flexibility and collaboration; this supports an essentialized cataloging of women’s ‘inherent’ strengths in working with people and across difference.”
“A series of keynote speakers modeled different aspects of computer science and information technology in the academy, in industry and in the U.S. Space program. This ‘intentional role modeling’ is seen by many promoters of women’s participation in IT as “a way to overcome the negative effects of stereotypes by increasing self-ratings and by inspiring and motivating achievement”. … Once again, this places young women in the dual role of being both strong and ‘at risk’ (Harris, 2001), strong in that their participation in IT work drives the national economy, but at risk of not living up to the expectations set by the role model, and potentially failing their own expectations for a high-paying and meaningful career. These intentional role models, as living motivational texts, organize work for those with already high self-expectations … and to push them to achieve further as selfactuating, self-(im)proving subjects. Not only is their own self-worth dependent on their achievement, but, they are told, so is the success of the nation: “Women’s lack of participation in IT has deep implications for our country’s preparedness, competitiveness, economic wellbeing, and quality of life” (NCWIT, n.d.).” (emphasis mine)
The Merit vs. Equality Debate
Noticeably, much of the policies and texts surrounding computer science education in Ontario place an emphasis on producing IT workers. “In much of the discussion around inclusion strategies in CS/IT education, the exchange often takes the form of a debate between those who point to the underrepresentation of women and targetted minority groups as not only inequitable but also potentially limiting to the development of future North American CS/IT workers, and those who argue against a ‘watering down’ of Computer Science as an academic discipline for the sake of filling enrolment targets.”
Sturman is far from the first to observe the merit vs. equality debate in computer science. She presents some examples of texts representing these discourses. Since many others have covered this topic, I’ll be brief here.
She draws a connection to the focus of numerical equality: that “dominant belief for practitioners is that getting more women into the field will change science; Schiebinger (2000) suggests that only feminist analysis alongside women’s greater participation within the field will bring that change about, as past history and current resistance to change indicates.”
If it wasn’t clear by now, Sturman is not a positivist. Indeed, she argues that the hegemony of positivism in computer science is part of the problem: it leads to a focus on what is measurable and “objective” (ie. numeric equality) rather than on the “subjective” experiences and emotions of the women in CS.
Positivism also falls prey to the grand narrative of cause and effect. She describes much of the research on women in CS: “The general purpose of these investigations seems to be to identify a cause-effect pathway and then to proceed with an equally linear solution. This strategy mirrors the methods of positivist science, and the reasoning is that a solution to this scientific/technical problem must use parallel scientific means … “The difficulty with this approach is that the subject of science is transparent to itself and tends to reproduce its own image iteratively. Thus the ‘problem’ of ‘women in computing’ bounces back to researchers without much in the way of new insights, let alone solutions. The ‘numbers game’ dominates, even as feminist proponents of gender equity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) acknowledge its failure.” “
Publishing practices also contribute to the “problem”: she talks to people who tried to publish “failed” interventions and were rejected. “Gender” is seen as a niche issue: “she was told that the journal had already published a lot of submissions on ‘gender’”
It’s my opinion that the CS education scene has improved on these fronts since 2006 (there are good places like ICER and RESPECT that have been created, but they are not representative of all CS education). But women in computing groups today still seem uncomfortable with non-positivist research. I attended Can-CWiC earlier this year and noticed a huge divide between the female faculty (who wanted to hear about my research and were excited by it) and the female students (who were dismissive of me for not being a real “computer scientist”).
A Final Quote from the Thesis
One of Sturman’s faculty participants candidly noted that “…to keep in mind … is we’re the survivors. We’re the ones who could put up with all the crap, and we had enough, a strong enough sense of self, or our personalities are such that we fit in well enough with the dominant, mostly male environment that we were able to do fine. So we would be the last ones who’d be able to tell that the atmosphere is poor… in some sense we’re part of it, if that makes sense [Laughs]. We were selected for being able to put up with toxins, so we’re probably not the best ones to detect it, necessarily”
My Own Thoughts
My first reactions to the thesis were excitement that somebody has done this work – only to follow with disappointment that the work was never published, and never disseminated to the audience it would most benefit: computer scientists.
Not only was it never disseminated, it’s written in a way that is really only accessible to theory-oriented sociologists. She describes almost nothing of her methods or analytic process. No primer is given on the many social theories that she uses.
While poststructuralism doesn’t aim to verify hypotheses (like positivism) nor to explain the world (like constructivism), it does aim to provide new narratives to counteract problematic ones. An unpublished, inaccessible thesis does not help computer scientists rethink their problematic narratives and build new ones.
Since Sturman did her research in 2005, some things have changed. Some of her critiques and observations have been independently made. For example, Sarah Nadav’s post that “The “Women in Tech” movement is full of victim blaming bullshit” recently went viral. And within the CS Ed community, I’ve spent some time at ICER critiquing women in CS initiatives for many of the same reasons, though based more on evidence from social psychology. I’ve also written on the generational differences between the women running Women in Computing events and the young women attending them (see here and here). I’m wishing I’d read her thesis three years ago!
There are things that have been deconstructed since 2005 which Sturman didn’t pick up on. One is the pipeline discourse, which Sturman treats unproblematically. Another is her own, and her participants’ use of “females” as a noun, which is a personal pet peeve of mine.
I found Sturman’s discussion of Unlocking the Clubhouse as simplistic: while she made the key observation that the initiatives had the political support to succeed, she views the curricular changes as the only ones. The folks I’ve talked to about CMU’s initiatives have indicated that it was the admissions changes that may have been the most significant.
Since Sturman wrote her thesis, many scholars have critiqued how “women in STEM” is being presented. Marieke van den Brink, for example, has found many of the same discourses and paradoxes in the women in physics community. Padavic et al have pushed on the “work/life discourse” as problematic with interesting insights. Overall, the focus has been slowly shifting from trying to “fix” the women/girls to fixing the structure of science. Sturman’s thesis gives us more ammunition for arguing that the old way of promoting “women in computing” is problematic and in need of rethinking.