Rob Shimshock, DCNF
A University of Washington professor’s essay entitled “Why Women Don’t Code” drew condemnation from his own colleagues, including his department director.
Computer science professor Stuart Reges, who teaches entry-level coding at UW, asserts in his essay that the percentage of women in tech is unlikely to pass 20 percent, due to different aptitudes and choices of men and women. But his colleagues have spoken out in disagreement, according to The Seattle Times.
“Those of us who disagree with current diversity efforts need to speak up and share our honest opinions, even if doing so puts us at risk,” the professor, who does not hold tenure, said in his Quillette piece.
Reges evidenced his willingness to speak truth to power by citing his previous termination from Stanford University for “violating campus drug policy” when he disclosed his own drug use while arguing against the war on drugs.
The professor stated his preference for equality of opportunity over equity, or equality of outcome, and noted that he became very interested in examining diversity in STEM after Google’s firing of James Damore for his internal memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”
“The idea that men drove women from the field is not supported by the data,” Reges said. “There has been no period of time when men have been increasing while women have been decreasing.”
The professor noted that men respond more than women to economic incentives and that women tend to avoid risk more often on average. Reges includes a National Science Foundation graph demonstrating that while the share of computer science majors who were female rose from 15 percent in 1965 to about 37 percent in 1984, it subsequently began plummeting to below 20 percent in 2015. The professor attributes this shift to a change in women’s choices.
Reges said women rose from constituting 16 percent of UW’s computer science majors to 30 percent, a stat also reflected at Stanford University, but have not increased beyond that. He said that a Princeton colleague says that the school has not progressed past the mid-30s mark and that while Carnegie Mellon University and Harvey Mudd College have reported women comprising half or a greater portion of computer science departments, both schools have “put special emphasis on tweaking admissions criteria and creating special programs for women in computing.”
“I worry that lack of progress will make us more likely to switch from positive messages about women succeeding in tech to negative stories about men behaving badly in tech, which I think will do more harm than good,” he said. “Women will find themselves wondering if they should resent men and men will feel guilty for sins committed by other men.”
“Our community must face the difficult truth that we aren’t likely to make further progress in attracting women to computer science,” Reges concluded. “Women can code, but often they don’t want to. We will never reach gender parity. You can shame and fire all of the Damores you find, but that won’t change the underlying reality.”
But while the professor’s argument suggested that biological determinism played a role in turning women away from computer science, his UW colleagues implied that social constructivism kept women out.
“There’s a great deal of evidence that students’ preferences for certain fields are powerfully shaped by the perceived social environment of these fields,” UW psychology professor Sapna Cheryan told The Seattle Times.
Cheryan has previously asserted that changing work environments by doing things like replacing “Star Trek” posters with pictures of art and nature can help women feel like they belong.
“The only thing right about Stuart’s article was that women are generally less interested in [computer science] than men,” UW computer science professor Andy Ko said. “He was just wrong about why.”
He suggested that for Reges “to share opinions, weakly supported by cherry-picked, misinterpreted scientific studies is not a good representation of the caliber of expertise at the university, or its values, or CSE, or the broader university’s efforts at diversity and equity.”
Reges’ department director, Hank Levy, expressed skepticism regarding the professor’s assertion that the proportion of women in computer science would not keep growing.
“We acknowledge that we have a long way to go, but [diversity and inclusion] efforts work,” Levy told The Seattle Times. “We do not believe that where we are today is the best we are likely to achieve.”
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