Ana Park | Williams College
Bloomberg Technology host, Emily Chang is receiving much praise and admiration for her new book, Brotopia, where she illuminates the severity of sexism and all of its components in Silicon Valley’s tech companies. Chang’s timing could not be better with the #MeToo movement taking center stage. Not only does she draw national attention to this relevant issue, but she tackles some of the common explanations for the lack of women working in tech companies, such as the limited number of women with computer science degrees making it harder for women to break into the start-up world.
While implicit bias is an issue that needs to be addressed, the psychological underpinnings of how students and the academic world operate should also be considered. In her article, “What keeps girls (and some boys) out of computer classes,” Eileen Pollack highlights a study by University of Washington psychology professor, Sapna Cheryan, that female students tend to be more willing to enroll in a computer course “if they are shown a classroom (whether virtual or real) decorated not with . . . tech magazines, and boxes for video games and software but rather with art and nature posters”. These studies, however, in many ways, play into the stereotypes they seek to address and do not answer the fundamental question of why people make the choices they make.
Dr. Michael E. Price might have the answer with his article, “Human Herding: How People are Like Guppies”. He explains that “herding often involves people using the actions of others as a guide to sensible behavior, instead of independently seeking out high-quality information about the likely outcomes of these actions”. People herd as a way of making a mental shortcut. It is innate to take the more efficient path rather than the path that is less traveled.
Policy makers and people who work in academia should try to make it easier for students to break from their herds. Reversing the current imbalance will require new thinking in terms of what motivates class selections for both women and men. Why is it that many high schools allow students to sit in gender groups, and do they see how this may deter women from selecting classes where they will be the minority? The reason women do not take computer science is not that they prefer flowers and paintings on the classroom walls. It is because outdated curricular options and classroom practices feed into the gender divide rather than encourage collaboration.
The current curricular structure has not really changed in fifty years. Schools could do more to integrate computer science into the general science, humanities and math curriculum as a means to reduce barriers. They need to create curricular bridges that will allow both women and men to break from their herds. It is human nature to not want to be the minority, to be the only woman or man in the room. This is also why most men have no incentive to take ballet classes. People follow their herds too much.
Fixing these structural issues will take time and effort and as Chang writes, “Getting to fifty-fifty is incredibly complex and nuanced, requiring many detailed solutions that will take decades to fully play out”. Now is the time to start.