Engineering Diversity

Sue Loh on July 11, 2018

The way we talk about engineers impacts whether people try engineering, how confident they feel, and our perception of their competence. My TIM ... [Read Full]
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Let me share some of my experience.

I was a private math tutor for upper class families for almost a decade. I taught over 40 students smart and ... not so smart during that time, both boys and girls. Even among the brightest students, two girls stand out to me the most.

The first girl was really smart. At 8th grade, she was already doing calculus, and she actually GETS IT. She didn't just memorize a bunch of problem formats and just blindly applied the memorization. She actually understood the material. She was linguistically gifted too. She was already reading upper high school level books and was able to communicate her thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the books as eloquently in writing and in person as anyone I know.

When I asked her what she wanted to be in the future, she said she wanted to be a judge. When I asked her why, she said she didn't really know. I suspect her parents' influence. When I showed her how programming worked, and how things are made better with programming, and how fun it could be to solve problems, she showed 0 interest. Not even a customary "oh that's cool."

She just wasn't interested. At all.

Another girl stands out in my mind. Although I met her at a different period than from the first girl, she was also very gifted. At 8th grade, she was doing 10th grade American Math Competition, and she, too, like the first girl, actually understood math. And she, too, showed absolutely no interest in programming. Her hobbies included watching YouTube for make up tutorials, and TV shows. I don't suspect her parents influence, because her parents were both like "she can be whatever she wants to be as long as it makes her happy."

Another reason she stood out to me was because of twin brothers who were younger than her. Those two were absolutely terrible in math. They had no logic to speak of, almost to the point where I suspected her sister taking all the logic points when she was born (as in a game where one can use points in the beginning to increase one's stats), leaving none for her twin brothers.

Even though they were terrible at math and logic (even in writing) in general, they showed fiery interest in programming. That is not to say they were good. They couldn't even understand the most elementary for-loop. But they were enthusiastic about learning more.

For the longest time, I, too, like you, thought if we can just get girls to become interested in programming, and how cool it could be, they would show interest. But most I've seen simply don't even have that initial spark that can grow into a passion. Although the two girls I mentioned were the ones that are most memorable, all the girls were more or less the same. It didn't matter what they were good or bad at. They simply didn't have interest in programming.

After becoming a parent and quitting tutoring, I came across a couple of articles that sort of solidified my suspicion that some interests were innate, rather than nurtured. One of the articles documented how baby boys are mostly interested in toy cars, and most girls were interested in dolls. This trait can even be found in monkeys (Google: "Boys Girls toy preference"). I know sex-specific toy preference doesn't necessarily translate to interest in programming, but I do think some interests are just sex specific, and don't really deviate from it.

Another article that I read from The Atlantic (theatlantic.com/science/archive/20...), a left-leaning publication, states that in country where women have broad opportunities, they CHOOSE not to go into STEM in pursuit of other things. It also says that in countries where women NEED to make money, they go into STEM.

All this is to say, it's not that women CAN'T, it's that women DON'T want to. Of course this is not to say every woman. But I think it's very important that we make sure EVERYONE gets a fair opportunity and exposure to programming and STEM in general while not trying to FORCE it.

 

I can understand how that experience would be discouraging. I wish we could tease apart how much of these young women's behavior was due to their natural preferences, how much was due to social norms they had already absorbed, and whether you could have gotten them into it if you had talked to them about how they could apply CS to stuff they were passionate about (assuming you did not already try).

I am not trying to force anything here. I am trying to point out that the subtle messaging in our world is not fair and has real effects, so I want to balance that out before giving up and saying everyone is doing their "natural" thing.

 

I subjectively think that lots of these issues have roots in school.

People that did worse in school used to bully people that did better and called them nerds / geeks / whatever not. There are probably social reasons why they did so, but this became cliche.

And obviously, people who worked hard (nerds / geeks) towards their life goals chose studies and jobs that require lots of thinking and such kind of work was their drive.

So this was the picture and mentality built throughout many years and takes time to change.

I'm all in for inclusive environment and should help everyone to get in the field but not end up having quotas for a race/sex/gender/whatever else, this way we're stepping back.

 

Thanks for your input on the nerd labeling.

I'm not advocating quotas. In fact I made sure not a single thing I recommended involved any action specific to gender or race.

 

Congratulations and thank you for this amazing piece! <3
You will get me thinking for a while...

By the way, congrats on that badass blog domain! I'm adding it to my feed right now!

 

Thanks! ☺ Let me know if you think of any related points to add or argue... I'm always looking to better refine my thoughts and for new avenues to explore.

 

I'm giving a streaming version of this talk tomorrow for dev.to! Join us! dev.to/events/24-workshop-engineer...

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