Wrongly Wired? Why There Is A Lack Of Women In Computer Science

20/01/2012 12:41 GMT | Updated 19/03/2012 09:12 GMT

A pattern is emerging in my blog posts. What really gets me fired up are ill thought through, blind assertions that men and women are so fundamentally (read biologically) different. There has been recent talk about the UK boosting the computer literacy of the next generation. During such discussions when women are mentioned in technology and computer science this divisive kind of language is dominant. How often have you heard someone say that women are better at multi-tasking? Or that men are 'systemisers' and women 'empathisers'? Or even that women are irrational and men rational. Of course the skills set required to succeed within the remit of computer science and technology are the so called 'masculine' ones. What I want to discuss is what solid evidence (or lack of) supports this gender discrimination and therefore why is it that women are underrepresented in this field (you'll no doubt guess the former is the cause of the latter).

The neuroscientist Cordelia Fine thoroughly examines my first query in Delusions of Gender; a pinnacle piece of feminist literature which I thoroughly recommend and could quote all day (but I will just give you a snippet here). She highlights the flaws in studies which cannot decipher sociologically driven from biological factors when attempting to prove hard wired gender differences. Furthermore when she looks at counter studies with subtle changes (such as being told or not told before a test that men do better at logic tests) these so called hard wired differences are dramatically reduced. She eloquently proves that our perception of what is hard wired is somewhat misled. (Though she is not trying to prove that there are no differences in the brain)

Yet she appears to be in the minority opinion here. I heard recently from a friend about a head teacher of an all-girls secondary school who, during a start of term assembly, told the pupils how logical men are(infer how emotional and illogical you girls are). Not only is there little scientific evidence to support this, but what kind of message does this send to these young women? The danger is that this is a self fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the more we tell young girls they are illogical the less logical they indeed become. That men are more logical than women has truth because we say it and therefore engender it. If you have been told your whole life that you won't be as good at maths then you start to believe it and it becomes true. Fine coins this situation as the 'stereotype threat' and it occurs in all forms of discrimination. For whatever reason though, to make these stereotypical claims between genders does not carry the same social taboo that making a stereotypical claim about race does (and rightly should do). We don't feel comfortable inferring from the colour of someone's skin (symptom of a tiny genetic difference) that they will have a specific skill set or large difference in the brain. Why is it then ok to infer these 'scientific' claims about human brains from observation that women and men have physical differences?

And once again like most problems with gender discrimination we need to start young. We need to fight against these artificial stereotypes when teaching children so that more women can release their potential in the world of computer science and technology (and indeed help us release our potential as a country). Head teachers certainly shouldn't be the ones enforcing these stereotypes.