Why don't women go into Computer Science?

Posted in Random thoughts, Technology trends at 4:56 pm by ducky

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.


  1. lahosken said,

    October 15, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    OK, if it’s too difficult to make CS appear less risky, maybe we can make veterinary science look _more_ risky. Like, OMG I can’t believe a vet has to take responsibility for the life of a sheep. There are so many things that can kill a sheep, it would be terrible to have to keep track of all of them. There are more of them than there are of you. If I mess up some pointer arithmetic maybe it’s going to take a little longer to generate a billing report for some customer. But at least I’m not responsible for the lives of anyone’s livestock.

  2. ducky said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:02 am

    LOL! 😀

  3. jeffp said,

    November 24, 2007 at 7:42 am

    I think I read the same article that prompted some of this – the one about men taking more risks. I’m not at all sure I buy that theory, though it is interesting. But even if you do buy it, I have to ask what it is that would cause fewer women to enter CS as a field. I don’t think it is clear that kids are aware of how rapidly the guts of the high tech world roll over. In addition, well before they’re ten, girls want to do girlish things and boys want to do boyish things.

    Society may program kids in various ways, and there are all kinds of possible reasons for that. And there may be an element of risk taking behavior that comes more easily to men for some reason, but I don’t know that I see engineering as inherently more risky than anything else, and I really have a hard time seeing that kids would see it that way, and they’d have to do so to make the decision to go into (or not) engineering, right?

  4. Best Webfoot Forward » Gender and programming said,

    May 20, 2009 at 11:44 am

    […] shown that women are — in general — more risk averse than men are.  (I’ve also commented on this.)  She said that her research found that risk-averse people (most women and some men) are […]