Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How to address a systemic mental hangup?

Last week there was a really solid piece in the Sunday Times on female technological entrepreneurs. I was pleased with the quality of the research, and can personally relate to a lot of the comments from women interviewed. For example:

"It just never dawned on me to do it [enter engineering]," she says. "You're just sitting there pecking away. I need more human interaction."

I've actually heard this firsthand from a former DB programmer somewhat recently. And this seems a little odd to me because the biggest reason I opted for a career in QA was the collaborative aspect. When I was handling customer accounts the human connection is very superficial, limited to a few moments at a time with someone you rarely speak with. Building websites also means building professional relationships with your team members. You're working towards a common goal, which is infinitely more satisfying to me then solving dozens of smaller scale problems for people I speak to very infrequently.

However it does speak for the educational disadvantage than many women have in the computer sciences. Math is not a very collaborative field, and women generally tend to opt for other fields of study as a result. This is a problem for technical innovation.

One of my favorite characteristics of humanity is a person's ability, by dint of human self awareness and habit of self reflection, to evolve and change with enough will and discipline. That's going to be a pretty key quality if this is a problem that the IT industry wants to solve. Ms. Miller hits the nail right on the head here when in a couple places she mentions women's lower confidence as a suspected reason for hesitance in making an entrepreneurial leap without every detail worked out (see the case of Ms. Karen Watts in the Times piece), and the fact that we're discouraged from a young age from committing to math and the sciences. When I was in high school, a close male relative of mine once commented that "it's too bad you're not as good at math because you have a good grasp of physics." Owch. And I heard a lot of that growing up, not to intentionally discourage, but to shield from academic discouragement by saying that girls aren't supposed to be good at math anyway. We're not bad at math per se, we just like working in groups instead of sawing away at a single problem all alone.

But as has been successfully argued from numerous corners of industry,* fewer women in the math and sciences is still bad for innovation. So how do we encourage more women to go into them if they're "naturally" inclined in other areas? (Disclaimer: I personally think leaning too heavily on what comes "naturally" is a cop-out. See previous comments regarding self discipline and personal change.) First we need to stop telling kids that girls aren't supposed to be good at math. Not only does it encourage a feeling of helplessness and discourage the development of self-discipline, it's bloody untrue. While women obviously do tend towards activities entailing interpersonal relationships and more verbal communication, math can still be taught in a way that would be engaging to those personality types. Almost all of Paul Erdős' work was completely collaborative; he embraced the idea of "crowd sourcing" before we even had a world wide web. Especially now that so much more is understood about different cognitive and learning styles in children, taking a more cooperative and collaborative approach to teaching math in the hope of reducing the gender disparity in math heavy professions would certainly be worth investigating.


*Quoted from the link above: "Venture-backed start-ups run by women use, on average, 40 percent less capital than start-ups run by men and are increasingly involved in successful initial public offerings of stock, according to a recent white paper by Cindy Padnos, a venture capitalist who compiled data from 100 studies on gender and tech entrepreneurship."


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