Turns out the STEM ‘gender gap’ isn’t a gap at all

Grace Hopper and Univac, image from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_HopperAt least in Ontario, it seems that there are about as many women as men taking STEM programs at undergraduate level. This represents a smaller percentage of women taking STEM subjects overall because there are way more women entering university in the first place. A more interesting reading of this, therefore, is not that we have a problem attracting women to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but that we have a problem attracting men to the humanities, social sciences, and the liberal arts. As the article puts it:

“it’s not that women aren’t interested in STEM; it’s that men aren’t interested in poetry—or languages or philosophy or art or all the other non-STEM subjects.”

That’s a serious problem.

As someone with qualifications in both (incredibly broad) areas, and interests in many sub-areas of each,  I find the arbitrary separation between them to be ludicrous, leading to no end of idiocy at both extremes, and little opportunity for cross-fertilization in the middle. It bothers me greatly that technology subjects like computing or architecture should be bundled with sciences like biology or physics, but not with social sciences or arts, which are way more relevant and appropriate to the activities of most computer professionals. In fact, it bothers me that we feel the need to separate out large fields like this at all. Everyone plays lip service to cross-disciplinary work but, when we try to take that seriously and cross the big boundaries, there is so much polarization between the science and arts communities that they usually don’t even understand one another, let alone work in harmony. We don’t just need more men in the liberal arts – we need more scientists, engineers, and technologists to cross those boundaries, whatever their gender. And, vice versa, we need more liberal artists (that sounds odd, but I have no better term) and social scientists in the sciences and, especially, in technology.

But it’s also a problem of category errors in the other direction. This clumping together of the whole of STEM conceals the fact that in some subjects – computing, say – there actually is a massive gender imbalance (including in Ontario), no matter how you mess with the statistics. This is what happens when you try to use averages to talk about specifics: it conceals far more than it reveals.

I wish I knew how to change that imbalance in my own designated field of computing, an area that I deliberately chose precisely because it cuts across almost every other field and did not limit me to doing one kind of thing. I do arts, science, social science, humanities, and more, thanks to working with machines that cross virtually every boundary.

I suspect that fixing the problem has little to do with marketing our programs better, nor with any such surface efforts that focus on the symptoms rather than the cause. A better solution is to accept and to celebrate the fact that the field of computing is much broader and vastly more interesting than the tiny subset of it that can be described as computer science, and to build up from there. It’s especially annoying that the problem exists at Athabasca where a wise decision was made long ago not to offer a computer science program. We have computing and information systems programs, but not any programs in computer science. Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of lazy media and computing profs (suffering from science envy) that promulgate the nonsense, even good friends of mine that should know better sometimes describe me as a computer scientist (I am emphatically not), and even some of our own staff think of what we do as computer science. To change that perception means not just a change in nomenclature, but a change in how and what we, at least in Athabasca, teach. For example, we might mindfully adopt an approach that contextualizes computing around projects and applications, rather than its theory and mechanics. We might design a program that doesn’t just lump together a bunch of disconnected courses and call it a minor but that, in each course (if courses are even needed), actively crosses boundaries – to see how code relates to poetry, how art can inform and be informed by software, how understanding how people behave can be used in designing better systems, how learning is changed by the tools we create, and so on.

We don’t need disciplines any more, especially not in a technology field. We need connections. We don’t need to change our image. We need to change our reality. I’m finding that to be quite a difficult challenge right now.

 

Address of the bookmark: http://windsorstar.com/opinion/william-watson-turns-out-the-stem-gender-gap-isnt-a-gap-at-all/wcm/ee4217ec-be76-4b72-b056-38a7981348f2

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2929581/turns-out-the-stem-%E2%80%98gender-gap%E2%80%99-isn%E2%80%99t-a-gap-at-all

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

3 Comments on Turns out the STEM ‘gender gap’ isn’t a gap at all

  1. dave says:

    Art for art’s sake… ‘stress not’ as they say in the awful Sunny loans ads. Are you in the UK this year?

    1. Jon Dron says:

      It has been a long time since I saw any UK TV ads! I rather miss them. Perhaps I will visit to check them out – there’s a possible opportunity around the middle of the year.

  2. bledha says:

    There seems to be a bit of a disconnection between the original opinion piece that marks the foundation of your article and the content – despite borrowing the title from the piece, it must be stated that (even as the piece itself indicates) a sex representation gap does exist within STEM fields. The fact that some folks noticed that there were more women at university and so “simple arithmetic” would dictate of course there are less women in STEM, it must also be made clear that of course statisticians were aware of this – and even after cleaning the data to represent equal group values, the gap still existed in many places it was studied. That also isn’t to say this is a bad thing, and your article is great at pointing out the reason why.

    It seems many people don’t try to consider the mirror image the stats are drawing – it is fundamentally interesting that it is also likely (to infer from the statistics, as it of course isn’t statistically supported that men just aren’t interested in something) men are less likely to go into non-STEM fields. Again, who is to say this is a problem? As long as folks are free to choose their programs this shouldn’t ever be labelled as a problem.

    Your idea of connection throughout disciplines is incredibly appealing, and it seems that a holistic approach to interconnections is a great way to engage from an educators perspective.

    As for AU, strange that there is no ‘computer science’ program – and also slightly misleading, as the information systems programs are all titled Computer Science…

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