Truth Values: What Mathematics Can Teach Us About the CS Gender Imbalance

Tonight we took a group of Bard students to Vassar to see the play Truth Values by Gioia De Cari. The one-woman-show depicts her “Romp Through M.I.T.’s Male Math Maze.” It was a funny, touching account of the strange world of mathematics research and graduate education — first encounters with the research kind. The play made me reflect on my own experience in graduate school managing incoming expectations with sober, if foreign, realities.

Truth Values also pointed to a few lessons we computer scientists might heed. I would like to highlight a stark contrast between the reality of computer science education and research and that of mathematics. The gender imbalance in computer science is awful, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This makes it hard to tease out exactly why this imbalance exists. The story with mathematics education is different. And that just might provide computing educators some insight.

A Model: Undergraduate Mathematics

The field of mathematics does an excellent job at preparing our students for learning throughout their lives. An undergraduate mathematics education builds a strong foundation for a wide variety of future career and education paths. It really does the liberal arts education as good as any major. An in large part, undergraduate math programs have near gender parity, especially when compared with the other STEM disciplines.

Since 1980, 46% of all undergraduate mathematics majors have been women [National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics (NSF/SRS)]. This simple statistic can lead to a few conclusions:

  • Nearly as many women see mathematics as a valid choice of college major as men.
  • The culture of undergraduate math programs isn’t ugly enough to dissuade women from majoring in mathematics. (or perhaps it is even attractive)
  • Clearly, this is not evidence of any innate mathematical ability or lack thereof.

An Anti-Model: Graduate Mathematics

In contrast to the undergraduate statistics, the graduate numbers have much less gender parity. Or as computer scientists would call it: familiar. In the same time period, only 22% of mathematics doctoral degrees we earned by women. This drop off is amazing, and although I knew about it, tonight’s performance really brought it home. Some conclusions we can draw:

  • Not as many women see becoming a mathematician as a valid career choice as men.
  • The culture of research mathematics is disproportionally hostile to women.

Lessons for Computer Science

One potential step for correcting the nation-wide gender imbalance in computing: make computing a liberal art. (OK that was a shameless, yet serious, plug).

We should strive to package computer science as a valuable undergraduate major for many all of our students citizens. Not only in terms of varied backgrounds, but also in terms of future career paths. Computing can prepare students for a life of inquiry as usefully as mathematics. We are currently too vocation driven. Computer science students go on to careers in law, medicine, education, or the arts. And also, arts and humanities majors go on to work in the tech industry. Education and vocation are much more independent than we are lead to believe.

Many liberal arts colleges do not see quite the same gender imbalance as engineering schools. Perhaps, the emphasis on a liberal education could be part of the reason. If women don’t want to be professional computer scientists, just like they don’t want to be professional mathematicians, why should that disqualify them from studying computer science as an undergraduate?

But this argument, and solution, is a bit self-serving. The real, hard question is why aren’t women becoming mathematicians or computer scientists at the same rate as men? I don’t know all the reasons, but let me propose one step toward a solution.

Professional mathematics and computer science — as careers — need an update. Most people agree with this statement. But it is unfair to ask women (and other under-represented groups) to fight the good fight alone by either (a) assimilating to a broken culture which is not even running on all cylinders anyway or (b) rebelling and trying to change the culture on their own. It is our responsibility as a field, especially those of us more easily assimilated, to change our culture. Not only because it’s right, but because it is useful. Many of us came to academia from varied routes; it is our duty to fight the good fight, not that of first-year graduate students. When something offends us, in a meeting, at a conference or in the classroom — rather than assimilate, rebel.

One thought on “Truth Values: What Mathematics Can Teach Us About the CS Gender Imbalance”

  1. Very good points, Keith. Interesting take on over-emphasis on careerism.

    I do think that, as several of the panelists pointed out after “Truth Values,” having a critical mass of women (or any group) makes a difference. It helps normalize the values/reactions/etc. of the group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *