Landing : Athabascau University

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

Grace Hopper and Univac, image from 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.



  • Jon,

    This post is very timely (at least for me).

    I have been feeling the same as you report in your field. I began teaching adults (way back when) because I was incredibly curious and inspired about learning (and still am). That curiosity led me to teaching adolescents and that led me to my current career as a teacher educator.

    But like you, I see the whole enterprise as being an inherently cross disciplinary one. I am not only a teacher of teachers. I am a learner and have broad (and even some deep) interests. 

    I wholeheartendly agree with this:

    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.


    Gerald Ardito January 4, 2018 - 5:40am

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