Female CS Students

The incident in which (now former) Google engineer James Damore spoke out against the firm’s diversity policies continues to be in the news, and I continue to get a lot of mail on it, mainly in support of Damore and in disagreement with me. Actually, the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that Damore was wrong, and I will make a detailed post on this here within the next few days. In particular, I will discuss why Damore’s abiding faith in science may be misguided in various ways.

But for now, I want to call attention to this NPR report titled “Colleges Have Increased Women Computer Science Majors: What Can Google Learn?” Harvey Mudd College, and various others, have worked hard to increase female enrollment in computer science, NPR tells us, and Google could learn a thing or two from them.

Well, things are not always as they seem at first glance. Let’s put aside the fact that Mudd is an extremely selective school, a mini-Caltech/MIT, so the female students there have high math ability and possess “academic street smarts” in spades. The real issue is that Mudd’s “solution” to the paucity of women in CS was to make the curriculum easier. They switched from using the Java language to Python, “which is easier to pick up.”

This is exactly the kind of thing Damore was ranting about! He claims that Google lowers the hiring bar for women, which he says is counterproductive. So for NPR to say “Google should learn from HMC” is missing Damore’s point.

When HMC made this switch in 2006, I took a poll of my students. Both male and female students strongly disagreed with the switch, and the women in particular thought it was insulting.

Mind you, I still disagree with Damore and I actually believe that everyone should learn programming through Python rather than Java or C/C++. But the NPR piece typifies what a muddle has become of conversation on this topic.

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13 thoughts on “Female CS Students

  1. I think most arguments about what language to teach introductory courses in are silly. How about Knuth’s MIX? He wanted a language that didn’t actually have a compiler, so you’d have to, y’know, think. LOL. Well, I’m afraid he was off-base on that one, even if it seemed reasonable at the (Jurassic) time.

    Anything will do. I’d be happy to teach the class in QuickBasic, I don’t think there’s a better language or environment for a first-quarter course. Though I don’t know that a QuickBasic environment is available to run under current Windows (or Linux, …). It could probably be recreated pretty quickly, if anybody cared.

    Or could do it on punched cards in Fortran II the way I did it, walking uphill both ways to and from school through the shoulder-deep snow carrying heavy decks …

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  2. Hi;
    I am in agreement with you on male vs female programming abilities. I began to teach High School math after an H1B replaced me. It was an fine school that turned into an inner city school. I did not see any difference in ability to think abstract between male/female as long as they had a good IQ. These students were classified as gifted, but in reality were just hard working students that could be nurtured. The classes were about 50/50 male female. In the beginning some of the girls goofed off and refused to work but when their grades came out and their parents saw them, five came in and asked if I could help them catch up. We worked together and received the grades their parents wanted. Their parents expected them to go to private colleges, which I assume they did. There are some students who can not handle abstract thought and I am told that there is a dyslexia of numbers. I don’t know but with some gifted students i struggled to get them through math. I gave one student, whose father said she was a failure a take worksheet which was very close to the final exam. The next day we reviewed each problem together. I gave each student as mush time as necessary. Most finished in 1 1/2 hours. She took maybe three hours She received a 73 on the final and I passed her. She went on the private college and stopped in the next year to thank me. School was not rewarding, mostly threats, so I left after five years I understand dyslexia, I was diagnosed when I was eight, I am now 66 and it has never gone away. This was my experience.

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  3. When I was in school, we learned assembly language on the paper-tape punch (PTP) machine. So perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned. I never was exposed to Python or Java back then — I suspect they didn’t even exist. But I’ve always enjoyed and succeeded at programming, in a variety of languages. I think that once you’ve picked up the concepts, most of the ideas translate from language to language, and so the idea of learning in Python is not really a bad idea. The memory-management issues in C are a more advanced layer of programming techniques that don’t show up in Java, and I assume are not an issue in Python, either.

    What matters most is the ability (and rigorous mentality) to manage and organize steps in a complete and consistent manner. It’s vital to keep things organized, with no loose ends or “gaps” in the conditions. My Dad spent 20 years in the AF learning programming, and another 20 at a major medical center doing programming, before he retired. He never had an issue with a defective module or job assignment. What’s more, he never went to college; he grew up a woodsman and fisherman in the backwoods of Maine. He told me the key to successful programming was to recognize and test every variable for its possible values — typical, borderline, and extreme. He tested every module for every condition and exercised every path through the program before pronouncing it “finished”.

    Not very many fish ever escaped him, either. :*)

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  4. There’s no doubt that America has the best and brightest minds in the world, but Google, Intel, Facebook and others are only interested in diversity as vehicle to replace American workers, especially older white males, with cheap indentured guest workers. I support diversity 100% as long as it serves our minorities, but all this discussion just clouds the real issue. This system is devastating to our American minorities, our Sons and Daughters, the Google, Facebook, Intel demographics clearly show it. We have access to the best and brightest right here in America, we just need to stop companies from importing cheap labor and we need to cultivate and hire them

    I wonder what Google, Intel and Facebook demographics would look like without guest workers.

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  5. I’m a female CS, who left the field years ago, because of a$$holes like the google boy. I watched him being interviewed on Youtube and was totally unimpressed. How can you attend both Harvard and MIT, the premiere educational institutions, and still be so totally socially inept. His attempt to explore his ideas should have been done out of the office.

    Here are some of the opinions I have after working in tech and finance:

    An Ivy League education is a waste of money, see google boy and Larry Summers for proof.

    Most guys in tech have zero social skills, see google boy and Larry Summers for proof.

    If you have a PHD you probably wasted time your time, if your PHD is in CS or Economics, you definitely wasted your time. My list of examples is long.

    While google boy was pondering the deficiencies of women in the work place, some of us were figuring out better ways to do search.

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  6. The real issue is that the attempts to fix the perceived problem are worse than the problem itself, and overlook the simple possibility that a major reason most women don’t enter male-dominated professions is simply because they don’t want to be there, not because they are incapable or because of discrimination. That does not need to be “fixed,” and that is what most people today refuse to accept. I work with a very talented lady in our network management firm, and I have no fear about leaving the office and leaving any difficult network or server problems in her hands. With 16 years of experience, she can handle it. But she works with us because that’s what she wants to do and she’s good at it, not because some government or industrial bureaucrat decided that we needed a certain number of women in our organization to fix our hiring statistics, or because we were afraid of what one or another organization would say about us.

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    • What a load of …! My African-American woman engineering colleague often reminds me, “you can be what you can’t see.” That is so true. I did not know a single woman engineer when I got my Math/CS degree in 1979. But I had seen women military officers since my dad was in the army and later a civilian USAF employee, and so I joined the USAF. I had the choice of grad school in meteorology or being a software engineer. I chose software and became one of the first women software engineers at the Pentagon. (Yes, I knew Grace Hopper.) When I considered leaving engineering in the 1990s, I attended a SWE conference and saw OLD LADY engineers. That kept me in the business. Nowadays, I’m that old lady at conferences.

      Today, my 13 yo niece not only wants to go to Northwestern to study engineering like her uncle (my husband), but she sees an aunt who is an engineer and a mom, and she wants to study engineering. My own daughter was exposed to women engineers but chose something different and 2 years after law school, makes more than I do after 38 years in engineering–and she’s a public defender, the kind of lawyer that does’t get rich.

      If it hadn’t been for the USAF, I wouldn’t be an engineer. I would have taken my Math degree and gone on for a PhD and into academia,, or become an actuary (the hot thing to do when I graduated college.) You can’t be what you can’t see. We see lawyers and doctors on TV. Police, military. Teachers. But engineers, female engineers, engineers of color? Not so much.

      One of the most important things a majority person in any profession can do is attend a minority conference and feel what it’s like to stand out. It’s uncomfortable, but vital.

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  7. One small aspect of the fired Googler, he was a chess player, something in which women do poorly. The highest rated woman in the men’s list now is Hou Yifan [China], ranking #100,
    https://ratings.fide.com/top.phtml?list=men
    the 2nd best woman comes in around #250. My unscientific feeling is that women are less competitive, and less apt to become obsessed with highly abstract technical areas, like chess or software. Overall they are showing good judgement, as only the top few in most games have a decent career.

    Damore had a chess “ELO” rating of around 2300, [higher is better here] as a junior, quite good, a “master”, and may have retired from tournament play then, also good if you’re following the intense STEM path that he did. I am not as advanced in software as some here, partly because I was easily distracted by more fun things like chess. Although I was only an “expert” ELO 2100, I was briefly higher rated than any woman in the US back around 1980. I may have been better than any US woman at backgammon too, tho ratings here are more guesswork.

    But before you could say “Caitlyn Jenner” I was knocked off my perch as “ladies champ” & am far behind now, with many more women competing.

    Damore “was also the highest ranked player in the world in the video game Rise of Nations in 2004.” – Game players can more easily fall into a “men are smarter” attitude.

    For those with lots of time to burn [I don’t think that includes Norm 🙂 ], there are excellent free chess & backgammon programs downloadable [no guarantees]:

    http://www.playwitharena.com/

    http://www.gnubg.org/

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    • Thanks for the comments. Coincidentally, in my upcoming detailed post on the Damore matter, I will be using a chess example, though in a different direction.

      For now, though, I would raise these questions to those who believe that genetics plays a major role in such things: Just how far do you people want to push this? Did Einstein have a “relativity gene”? Maybe Ramanujan had a “number theory gene”? How about a “last theorem gene” for Fermat?

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    • Aw, you’re such a bold person, with your antifem comic. Do you find it hard to talk to other humans If you’ve been to any conferences, you’d know that just as you don’t send an all-white delegation to NSBE, you don’t send men to staff your booth when recruiting women. And by the way, BIOLOGY is very female-populated and is a STEM field, as are Nursing and medicine.

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