[Edu-sig] Microsoft's KPL

John Zelle john.zelle at wartburg.edu
Sun Oct 9 06:06:18 CEST 2005

OK, I think I'm getting some insight here, but something still doesn't 
quite ring true for me.

I said:
>>I hear researchers say this at conferences, and I read it in the 
>>literature about gender balance in computer science, but I still don't 
>>understand it. Can you explain why when selecting majors women consider 
>>CS as "not useful" and therefore to be avoided when they seem to have no 
>>such qualms about, say, history or English literature? Here in the 
>>states, women are also severely underrepresented in natural sciences and 
>>engineering, also areas of obvious utility.

Laura responded:
> When we interviewed the chemistry students here at Chalmers, as to
> why they were 'bucking the trend' -- last years, decades, worth of
> female students who lead the way seemed to be the answer.
> I think that your question indicates your problem.  It is not that
> women start with a list of 'everything is worthwhile' and cross
> things out.  Rather, they start with a list of a few things that
> are worthwhile.  Those not on the list are assumed to be worthless.

I think I understand what you're saying, but what I still don't 
understand is how majors like English lit and history _do_ get on the 
list. There are many "non-service" majors that do not seem to have this 
problem with gender balance. How are women getting the message that it's 
OK to pursue a "selfish" interest in literature? The obvious answer to 
me that they must get more enjoyment from literature than from 
computing. The question is why? Is it cultural, or is it a natural 
male/female distinction?

> The problem is to get programming (you will never get
> computer science as I know it on the list, since it is only done
> for the sheer joy of it, and is mostly unuseful) 
 > on the list of
 > _useful applied sciences where women do well_.  For some
 > strange and largely  not undserstood reason that happened here
 > in Sweden about Chemistry.
 > Lots of us are trying to understand this.

Computer science to you must only be theory. That's fine, but for the 
record, there's plenty of practical and applied CS as well. I think in 
Europe CS tends to be much more theory laden than it is here.

Anyway, I think you are probably right that trying to understand why CS 
is not on the "useful list" is the key here (at least for me). 
Substitute programming and the problem is the same.

>>>Speaking specifically to CS, both boys and girls are heavy users of 
>>computers now (although girls tend to start a bit later). So why don't 
>>girls perceive computing as a useful field of study? I don't think it's 
>>because it involves mathematics, because frankly, most entering CS 
>>majors (male or female) have no idea that CS involves much mathematics.
> This is a new thing in the USA, then, and it has not spread here
> where 'you have to be good at math' is seen as necessary for a 
> CS major.

Again, I suspect this is a US/Europe distinction. CS here tends to be a 
mix of theory and practice that is much more "career oriented."

<lots of good stuff cut here>
> For hundreds of thousand of years, the job for all women has
> been the raising of their own children.  Childraising is
> difficult, and very few women have the natural talents to do
> this well.  Thus the futhering of civilisation required 
> the convincing of women that their best interests involved
> sitting around doing something they do not particularly enjoy
> and which they do poorly.

This seems way too strong to me. I find it highly unlikely that humans 
would have survived if women weren't damn good at raising children. And 
I doubt that civilization would ever have evolved if it required somehow 
"brainwashing" women against their natural characters to take care of 
the children. Certainly, plenty of women (and men) find having and 
raising children to be enormously rewarding.

> There is a two proned attack on this.  The first is to tell
> women that 'raising children takes no skill, or training, only
> love and unselfishness'.  This is wrong.  The second is to
> convince women that being selfish is the ultimate evil.

Warning, I'm _way_ out of my element here. It seems to me that learning 
to raise a family only requires that people can learn how to raise 
children based on their experiences of how they were raised. Larger 
societal messages are only strictly necessary to learn things that can't 
be directly experienced by individuals. But everyone was raised in some 

How is the message about selfishness differentially taught to boys and 
girls? I certainly try to teach both my son and my daughter to behave 
unselfishly. And, of course, I encourage them both to pursue what 
interests them. I don't feel any compulsion whatsoever to treat them 
differently in this respect. Where is the coercive power structure that 
instills such apparently different values in boys and girls in our 
modern society? If I as a parent don't feel it, what causes it? If 
anything, it seems that men have traditionally had the burden of 
"having" to pursue externally useful skills because they were expected 
to be the bread winners.

I just don't think it's as simple as girls being "taught" that they must 
always serve others. There still must be a reason that they prefer not 
to serve others by studying English lit rather than helping others by 
creating new technologies. Or maybe I'm missing something in this 
argument. It is true that I have no firsthand experience of the societal 
pressures that girls/women feel.


John M. Zelle, Ph.D.             Wartburg College
Professor of Computer Science    Waverly, IA
john.zelle at wartburg.edu          (319) 352-8360

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