UBC CS Prof. Rachel Pottinger‘s door has an article asking Why Women Become Veterinarians but Not Engineers. Fifty years ago, both were highly male-dominated fields. Today, women get about 3/4 of Vet Med degrees, while only about 1/5 of CS degrees. Maines doesn’t have an answer, but she does a good job of making the question interesting.
Right after I read Maines’ article, I read an article titled Is There Anything Good About Men by Roy F. Baumeister. It probably would have been better titled, “What are Men Good For?” The answer in the picture he paints is “taking risks.” He acknowledges that at the top end of the society, men dominate. To a very good first approximation, men are in charge. Presidents, CEOs, generals, Nobel Prize winners are usually men.
However, he points out that men are overrepresented at the both ends of society. He says that prisoners, the homeless. and people killed on the job (including soldiers) are also usually men. Interestingly, both the Nobel prize winners and the mentally retarded are more often male than female.
He goes on to develop his thesis more, but the basic idea is that men and women might have the same average ability at something, but that the distribution is usually much “fatter” for men than women. There are more men taking risks than women. Sometimes they succeed wildly; sometimes they fail wildly. Women hold down the middle ground, neither failing nor succeeding spectacularly.
Now go back to CS vs. Vet Med. I contend that CS has a much higher risk associated with it than Vet Med. If you don’t keep right on top of emerging computing technologies, it is really easy to get obsoleted in CS. The whole industry has changed several times in the past twenty years. Meanwhile, the architecture of the dog has not changed much in the past 200 years.
Even if you stay current with computing technologies, you aren’t guaranteed safe harbour during the high-tech world’s booms and busts. There is always the threat that someone else will release a product that will put you out of business, in part because the cost of distributing the product is so low. It is hard to imagine, however, how Microsoft could release a new product that would eliminate the need for someone to put antiseptic on Fido’s cut. The “distribution cost” of applying a bandage is very high.
The high-tech world is also more sensitive to fluctuations in consumer tastes and consumer confidence. While someone might delay buying an iPhone because they were nervous about their job getting cut, very few people euthanize their cat because money is tight.
It might be, then, that one way to make CS more attractive to women would be to make it less risky. Unfortunately, even though I have a pretty good imagination, I can’t think of how to make the high-tech world less risky.