Saturday, December 29, 2007

Math is for boys, but not in Italy

Why are women so under-represented in computer science research in the United States? And what can we do about it?

The conventional wisdom is that most of the damage is done in kindergarten or earlier, when parents teach their young sons to play chess, but not their young daughters, when a competitive and aggressive attitude is encouraged in boys and repressed in girls, and so on.

I do subscribe to this theory, but how do I reconcile it with the fact that, as observed by Luca Aceto, women are well represented in the Italian computer science academia? It's not like Italy is a post-gendered feminist utopia, after all.

As someone who has not lived in Italy in 11 years, and who has no training in social sciences, I'd like to offer my uninformed opinions.

For starters, although Italian society can appear shockingly sexist to one used to American political correctness, in practice things are more complex. I have heard Italian women in position of authority complain that they are not treated with the same respect as their male colleagues (an issue that is not very critical in hierarchy-free academia), but I have rarely, if ever, heard an Italian woman say that men are afraid of highly educated, smart women, an issue that seems to come up a lot here in the US. That is, although it may not be considered "feminine" in Italy to be a manager, it is ok to be smart and have a PhD (to the extent that people have any idea what a PhD is).

I'd like my people to take credit for this, but there is actually a "darker" side to this attitude. In Italy, academic research is chocked by a perennial funding crisis. Salaries are very low, and promotions are slow and unpredictable, because of frequent hiring freezes. It is common for a prospective academic to be in his or her mid-30s and still not be in the equivalent of a tenure-track position.

And so, I suspect, academia is something of a "woman's job," because it is ok for a woman to be in a career that is uncertain and does not pay well, but that moves on slowly, allows for maternity leaves, and is personally fulfilling. It is a bit like being an artist, or a writer. A man, however, has to provide for the family and so this is not so good for him.

My spaghetti-sociology may be completely off, but I think it's possible that the representation of women in computer science (and math) in Italy is indeed happening for all the wrong reasons. (A case of two wrongs making a right.)

If I am right, what lessons could we take about attracting more talented women to math, science and engineering in the short term, without having to wait for the revolution to come and for gender roles to be abolished or at least more fairly re-shuffled? Decreasing salaries and abolishing tenure could work, but I would rather not advocate such steps. Some of the proposals that have been around for a while, however, seem entirely reasonable: make the tenure clock more flexible, allow for longer parental leaves, and recognize that the current system, which puts a lot of pressure on people when they are in their late 20s to mid-30s puts a great strain on people who want to have, and actively rear, children before they are in their late 30s. (And that, in the current pre-revolutionary times, this is a concern that hits women disproportionately more than man.) In addition, whatever can be done to decrease a perception of math, science and engineering as "boys' subjects" should be done. I understand that CMU's spectacularly successful initiative to increase women's representation in undergraduate computer science education started from a similar, if more sophisticated, premise.