Decoding the Narrative on Women in Computing: A Case for Interdisciplinary Inquiry

By Jennifer Blaney

Over the past several years, the tech industry has seen frequent controversies that highlight pervasive gender inequities in the field, such as the recent anti-diversity memo in which former Google employee, James Damore, claimed that women were unsuited for careers in technology. Concurrently, there has been a growing body of research on the topic of “women in computing and technology”, which has examined strategies for increasing the representation of women in the field by targeting college recruitment, retention, and graduation. While this work has revealed a number of best practices for increasing the representation of women in computing disciplines, many questions remain that relate to the experiences and development of undergraduate women in computing and tech. For example:

  • How do undergraduate women make meaning of their experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field?
  • To what extent are undergraduate women in computing affected by the national dialogue on “women in tech”?
  • How do these narratives shape their perceptions of how they fit in the field of computing?

As a higher education researcher, I find these types of questions that emphasize the experience of being an undergraduate woman in tech of particular interest.

The Narrative of “Women in Tech”

Much of the national conversation on women’s representation in computing has taken on a deficit perspective, focusing on women’s presumed lack of prior programming experience and computing know-how, while ignoring the wide depth of expertise that women bring to computing courses. Through my dissertation research, I have acquired insights into the ways that women are impacted by the national discourse on their place in computing. During my data collection, multiple women I interviewed shared concerns about ways that research on and initiatives for women in computing and technology perpetuate a false narrative that they are unprepared for their coursework and require additional help in order to be successful.

While some participants asserted that these dynamics motivated them to prove this narrative wrong, others shared concerns that these narratives negatively impact how they view their own competence in their computing coursework, despite their academic achievements and demonstrated computing talents. For example, one of my dissertation participants expressed concerns about how taking surveys about women in computing sometimes leads her to internalize negatively worded survey items related to women’s competence saying, “I’ll start to do those surveys [on women in computer science] and I’ll start off thinking…like wow this is actually really ridiculous. This is crazy, like [survey items about women] can get so extreme, but then as I get near the end [of the survey] I start agreeing with it more, and I’m like, ‘okay, that’s weird?’”

In this statement, the student is expressing concerns about how research, and surveys in particular, might perpetuate assumptions about women’s abilities to do computing. Further, after repeatedly encountering stereotypical survey items, she begins to internalize the idea that she is less capable of computing. While she also expresses awareness of herself doing this, the concept that research may be unintentionally leading women in computing to question their abilities is a concerning one, which highlights the importance of incorporating women’s voices in this research process so that we are aware of the impact we have on the women we are studying. Later in our conversation, this student also stated that research on women in computing should be more exploratory by using open-ended questions instead of asking students to agree with existing, sometimes stereotypical, statements about women in computing. While it is not feasible for researchers to stop surveying computing students altogether, her larger point about how certain types of research reinforce gender inequities should be a consideration in research design. Perhaps survey items asking about aspects of gender inequity should include only carefully worded statements about the environment so that individuals’ preparation and characteristics are not the sole focus of this work.

Of course, the goal here is not to place blame on researchers or practitioners working to close the gender gap in tech by examining gender inequities in computing. It is important to recognize that there are still individuals in the computing community who are actively hostile toward women, many of whom were recently emboldened after the circulation of Damore’s anti-diversity memo. Certainly we need more research examining these and other gender dynamics. However, the comments of this student should serve as a reminder that we must be careful that our research questions do not further perpetuate gender inequity by focusing on women’s perceived deficits, neglecting the talents they bring to computing while ignoring the hostile culture that allows individuals like Damore to remain successful in computing careers.

Challenging Dominant Narratives

In order to change dominant narratives about women in computing and refocus this work on systemic gender inequities, social scientists and computer scientists must work together. Recently, I had the opportunity to experience this first-hand when, with the support of CSW, I traveled to Seattle to present a paper at the annual meeting of the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE), co-authored with Dr. Jane Stout, Director of the Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline (CERP) at the Computing Research Association. This was my first time attending SIGCSE, a conference aimed at computer science educators who are working to improve the way we teach computing at the K-12 and college level. In this presentation, I shared findings about gender and introductory computing students’ self-efficacy and sense of belonging, focusing on the experiences of women who are also first-generation to college. This led to a conversation about how we study women in computing, I continued to engage in conversations with computer science educators about related concepts throughout the conference.

A frequent topic of discussion at this conference was how instructors can use growth mindset as a framework for promoting diversity in computing (i.e., promoting the belief that computing skills are learned rather than innate, and anyone can become a computer scientist). Specifically, some computer science educators referred to fostering a growth mindset as a best practice for challenging gender stereotypes about who belongs in computing by asserting that anyone can learn computing skills. These conversations in particular led me to write a recent blog post, where I challenge this type of thinking for its emphasis on women’s individual characteristics (i.e., their growth mindset) in a way that ignores the stereotypes and inequities in the larger culture in computing. More recently, Dr. Stout and I are co-authoring a paper that quantitatively examines the benefits and limitations of growth mindset as a tool for broadening women’s participation in undergraduate computing. While this work has important implications for where mindset fits in the narrative on women in computing, this is a topic that I would not have considered studying had it not been for conversations with computer science educators.

Interdisciplinary Inquiry

In my home discipline of higher education, my dissertation uses a feminist approach to examine women in undergraduate computing. By using feminist theories, I frame my inquiry in the voices of women computing students. Additionally, building relationships with computer science educators has enabled me to study related topics in a way that has direct implications for computing educators and practitioners working to broaden participation in their field. In this work, I have learned that in order to tackle these issues, we must establish a dialogue between feminist scholars, education researchers, and computer scientists. Further, we must be willing to challenge existing ways of thinking both within and outside of our home disciplines so that we can refocus this work so that it centers women’s voices and examines systemic inequities in computing. Women have been instrumental in advancing the field of computing and will continue to play a critical role in developing technologies in spite of systemic efforts to limit their advancement. These women deserve better, and we must work across traditional academic boundaries in order to create meaningful change.

Jennifer Blaney is a doctoral candidate in Higher Education and Organizational Change and also works as the Sr. Data Manager and a Research Analyst for the BRAID Research Project. She received a Travel Grant from CSW in 2016-2017.