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.

23 thoughts on “Math is for boys, but not in Italy

  1. “CMU’s spectacularly successful initiative to increase women’s representation in undergraduate computer science education”?

    Have you ever actually spoken to women who graduated from this much-advertised “successful” experiment? And, in particular, to those not active in the promotion of this experiment and in women’s issues in computer science in general?

    I have, and they had a lot of interesting things to say. The gist of what I got from them was this: As with any “quota” system imposed in an attempt to enforce diversity, going from the typical 15-20% enrollment of undergrad women to 50% required admitting an extra 30% that were basically not as qualified as the men admitted into the program, on average. Sure, lots can be said about how subjective the notion of “qualified” is, and how 4 years of undergrad education may well even out whatever discrepancies there were to start with.

    But the CMU alumnae I spoke with complained of spending 4 years dealing with the well-known fact that, as a woman in the CMU CS program, you were, in expectation, not as qualified as the average male. Everyone, I’m told, was well aware of this, and the women had to deal with constant problems with finding project partners and study groups, and, in general, with not being taken seriously by their peers and instructors. Every one of the several women I spoke with (who, given that I met them in grad school, were most likely qualified enough to have been admitted to CMU even without the “affirmative action” approach) said that, in retrospect, they would have much preferred to go to an undergrad institution without the affirmative-action-for-women problem, even if it meant going to a less prestigious school than CMU.

    Keep in mind that Lenore Blum and her cohorts have plenty of incentive to advertise this program’s successes, and that, other than an anonymous blog comment, there isn’t much of a venue for expressing skepticism about this program without the political correctness lynch mobs coming after you, so the published “analysis” of such programs is not an unbiased source of information. Talk to some real victims of this program and see what they tell you.

  2. I am certainly against explicit discrimination in any workforce, as well as implicit discrimination that serves to discourage anyone. But can someone explain to me why it is inherently “good” to increase the number of women in CS? Why not increase the number of male nurses, or female plumbers, or Jewish basketball players?

    Regarding your post specifically, I don’t see any evidence that lack of parental leaves and/or pressure have anything to do with the low numbers of CS women. For one thing, the percentage of women in CS drops off much earlier than at the assistant professor level. Second, academia is probably more flexible with regard to parental leave, etc., than any other field with comparable pay. Finally, you do realize that men have families and feel pressure too, right?

  3. To Anonymous #2,

    The time pressure risen from the parallelism in tenure track and biological clock of child bearing does push woman away from highly competitive academy.

  4. I was an undergrad at a school that did not have affirmative action for women, and the boys still did not take the girls seriously. I had boys tell me to my face that they’d never met a girl who could program before.

    As far as I can tell, the reasons that women do not study computer science are entirely different from the reasons that women are not well-represented in academia.

    The former is now mostly because CS does not have a very good reputation among 18 year old girls. The latter is going to be a question of tenure clocks and academic environments.

  5. But can someone explain to me why it is inherently “good” to increase the number of women in CS? Why not increase the number of male nurses, or female plumbers, or Jewish basketball players?

    Because there is no biological reason to think that women are incapable of performing as well in CS, so the lack of women in CS is evidence that we are losing lots of potential talent through whatever mechanism keeps women out of CS. It is inherently good to have the best people in CS that we can. If there were some evidence that 99% of males with brown hair, given the choice, choose mechanical engineering over CS, then I would say we need to push to get more males with brown hair into CS, as that would be another avenue where we are losing lots of potential talent.

    Why not increase the number of male nurses, or female plumbers, or Jewish basketball players?

    Because we aren’t nurses or plumbers or basketball players, so we don’t care what happens in those professions. Hopefully it is obvious why a professor might care more about issues of gender equality than nurses, plumbers, or basketball players, explaining why we push for this while those professions don’t (although I don’t know whether they do; perhaps this is a push underway). And there is an obvious biological reason why there aren’t any women NBA players.

  6. I have heard similar reports from CMU alumnae as anonymous #1.

    I was under the impression that the CMU approach was not a quota system – instead focusing admissions less on early exposure to computers and more on things like SAT scores and grades. Guess I was wrong. I’ll have to find my copy of _Unlocking the Clubhouse_ and check it. or has CMU’s policy changed since that report?

    Another point in this discussion is that medicine and law were previously male-dominated fields. Now they’re close to parity. Being a doctor or lawyer is arguably even more prestigious in the U.S. than being a computer science professor. Just count the number of TV shows!

    Finally, one of the bigger issues I’ve seen is stereotypical “horny 15 year old” that does drive away women by making them feel like aliens or sex objects. I’ve seen that happen more often than I’ve had friends tell me they are switching to something else on account of tenure or low academic pay scales. After all, the tech industry has the same disparity, and it doesn’t have the same pressures of tenure that academia does.

  7. This is anon #2 responding to anon #5:

    >> But can someone explain to me
    >> why it is inherently “good” to
    >> increase the number of women in
    >> CS?

    > Because there is no biological
    > reason to think that women are
    > incapable of performing as well
    > in CS.

    Agreed. But in that case, why not seek to recruit the most talented individuals regardless of their gender, etc.?

    I am fully in favor of equal access for men and women. What I question is whether we need equal numbers.

  8. From my own experience I can give you at least one more good reason for why we should have more women, besides the fact that we are losing potential talent — having more women will make it much easier for people like me to become a computer scientist. It has been extremely hard being a minority. Having a female mentor might have helped, or at least some more people I could actually collaborate with, people who wouldn’t be afraid of me because I’m “different”. Besides the obvious reasons (nerdiness, tenure pressure etc.) one of the biggest reasons why women shy away from disciplines like ours is because there are no women!
    And, that anonymous person who has some objection against having equal numbers, — we aren’t asking for equal numbers necessarily. We are asking for something better than practically 0 so I don’t have to notice that I am the only woman at a conference!

  9. “I am fully in favor of equal access for men and women. What I question is whether we need equal numbers.”

    I doubt that it is so much an issue of discrimination between men and women anymore.

    Being one of the very few women in CS, I never felt I was deprived of equal access or equal rights with men. I never felt discrimination by my male colleagues or peers. However, it IS extremely hard being a minority, not because men are “afraid” of smart women or because they didn’t take me seriously. It is because the work environment in CS -as well as every other job were 99% of the people are male- is cut-out for men and supports their
    work patterns : for one example, it is more individually competitive, and lacks team spirit. (Imagine how would a guy feel being, say, a single male nurse among women,no matter how much they liked their job)

    Having equal (or even of the same order of magnitude) women in CS is important in order to make
    it a better place for women to be in.

  10. If you don’t have equal numbers (or at least better numbers than today) then how do you know–how can you claim–that there is equal access? The only way to be assured that there is equal opportunity is to have equal numbers.

    There are so many basic things that could be done that are not being done. Why aren’t all paper submissions anonymous? Or at least, why isn’t that an option?

  11. Luca, sorry for asking, but can you configure the blog so that the comments are numbered? This would make it easier to follow threads like “This is anon #i responding to anon #j“.

  12. I don’t want to divert from the interesting discussion, but I’d like to add that I’ve observed a similar phenomenon as Luca’s spaghetti-sociology in Latin America. Lots of women in academia given its relatively low status as a middle-class occupation.

    There are also lots of women in CS in Israel. Is it the same phenomenon or something else?

  13. anonymous #12 and others: how about signing off with a nickname, say the one you used for restaurant reservations or haircut appointments? :) It could be fun, not to mention, add a tad more personality and context to your comments!

    happy new year!

  14. “jordan” – I have a very good guess as for your identity, based on your comment (willing to bet $100)…

  15. Both Math and EE are attracting proportionally many more women than CS is doing right now. That seems pretty good evidence that we have an image problem in CS (though given the relative salaries maybe some of Luca’s spaghetti-sociology explanation would apply to Math).

  16. Interestingly, your spaghetti-sociology can also be translated to samosa-sociology. Indian women also enjoy a much better representation in the academia for very similar reasons that you describe. Of course, it is a whole different story for an Indian woman working in the US academia. She needs to manage the competition in the US, and her traditional role of being an Indian woman. Which explains why we see so few Indian female professors in the US (in comparison to the number of Indian male professors)

    Also, surprisingly, at the undergrad level, the ratio of women in CS is extremely high (at my undergrad institute, it was 50%), though for a completely different reason. Medicine and engineering are considered to be the two top choices for smart students, and out of all other fields of engineering, computer “engineering” is perceived to offer a job with the best working conditions for women.

  17. if Italian women are so good in CS, why are we not seeing them winning awards at international venues?

  18. This is a comment in two parts.

    Part 1.

    if Italian women are so good in CS, why are we not seeing them winning awards at international venues?

    Actually, I do not think that Luca ever stated that “Italian women are good”. What he did write is that “women are well represented in the Italian computer science academia”.

    Mind you, there are many examples of Italian women who are excellent CS researchers—as there are many examples of women from other countries gracing our beautiful subject with their work. Here are some Italian examples off the top of my head, with apologies to those I won’t be able to mention.

    Elisa Bertino is one of the most prolific CS researchers according to DBLP. See here, where she is listed at position #2.

    – The article Automatic and versatile publications ranking for research institutions and scholars by Jie Ren and Richard N. Taylor lists two Italian women amongst the top fifty most “influential” researchers in software engineering (Paola Inverardi #17 and Antonia Bertolino #28).

    – The Turin group working on types and models for computation is led by Mariangiola Dezani and Simona Ronchi Della Rocca, who are well known in their research community.

    Catuscia Palamidessi is a Director of Research at INRIA and Leader of the equipe Com├Ęte. Check out Catuscia’s work and service to the TCS community, and you’ll see that she is very well respected.

    I could go on, but I won’t.

    So, why don’t we see those women win awards? For the same reason why many outstanding researchers will never win any award in their careers. Awards are a scarce resource, and, as Oded Goldreich states,

    “Typically, awards are actually a lottery (which is non-biased at best) among equals, and once the outcome is determined people treat the winners as if they were better. “

    I am sure any of us could name a list of people/papers that would be worthy of awards, but never received one. So, I don’t believe that one can judge the quality of a research community by focusing on the awards that community has received.

    Part 2.

    Luca, I like your “spaghetti sociology”, and your analysis hits the mark in several ways. In particular, I think that you are absolutely right in mentioning the fact that Italian women choose a career in academia because an academic job is perceived as being “a bit like being an artist, or a writer”.

    However, I believe that this is true also for many Italian male academics. As you point out, the Italian academic structure makes it hard for people under 40 to be in permanent academic positions. (Indeed, as pointed out in the commentary Reverse Age Discrimination written for Nature Physics by Francesco Sylos Labini and Stefano Zapperi, two physicists based in Rome, the reverse age discrimination is even worse in subjects like physics.) Moreover, as you also mention, salaries are low, and promotions are slow and unpredictable. So, why do Italians of both genders choose a career in academia when there are so many good reasons for doing otherwise?

    I may be naive, but I think that the intellectual appeal of a profession that makes one seem to be “a bit like being an artist, or a writer” has something to do with this choice. I have lived in countries where the word “intellectual” is nearly derogatory. I like to think that Italy is not one of them, and neither are countries like France and Israel, as far as I can tell. For some reason, these are all countries where there is a reasonable, albeit still below par, representation of women in academia.

    Let me indulge in some more uninformed and cheap sociological analysis—to be taken with a very large pinch of salt since, like you, I have not lived and worked in Italy for a long time.

    As far as female computer scientists and mathematicians are concerned, it is also possible that the fact that modern Italian women have so few children, and that Italian youth typically live at home much longer than youth elsewhere may also offer partial explanation for the reason why low-paid, uncertain, flexible, but intellectually satisfying jobs in academia still attract women (and young men for what matters). People who do not have children before their mid-30s and who do not need to support a family can afford to wait longer for their first decent wage, living in the meantime on the support of their families rather than on their meagre “assegni di ricerca” (literally, “research cheques”, a monthly pittance that several researchers receive on a monthly basis by Italian university departments). As you wrote, this is a case of many wrongs possibly making a right.

    What I find amazing is the dearth of women in CS and Maths in modern and enlightened countries in Northern Europe, which have some of the best health care, maternity laws and nursery facilities anywhere in the world.

    My wife was the first woman to become a full professor in CS in Iceland, and that happened in August 2006! There has never been a woman in Iceland holding a permanent position in Mathematics.

    The number of female professors in the other Nordic countries is very low, despite moves by countries like Sweden to have positions for which only women could apply—a move I know women do not approve of.

    As I wrote on my blog, I have no explanation for this phenomenon. More worryingly, whatever is being done to change the trend does not seem to be working that well. Whatever can be done to decrease a perception of math, science and engineering as “boys’ subjects” should be done, but it won’t be easy.

  19. Luca, a couple of observations supporting
    your arguments about female presence in math in Italy.

    Historically in Italy, exactly for the reasons you explained, high school teaching (not only math) was and, to some extent, still is prerogative of almost only women. Math University education was (and still is) the only way to access to teaching math at high school. Besides that, in Italy math university education was considered, in the common sense, something either for very talented persons (which are very few) or for someone interested to teach at school, altough recently this consideration is certainly changing.

    All together this may be one of the reasons why in the last decades the math degrees (in all italian universities) were full of female students. Clearly during these years Math Dept were hiring their professors from this catchment area.

    Just to give a (clearly not meaningful) example: during my first year in a math degree (in 85 I guess) there were around 80 new students: only 3 men.

    For computer science I believe the situation was similar but not so
    extreme.

    But things are changing nowadays (may be because Italy public school is slowly fall through ?). Indeed science degrees (CS inlcluded) have or try to have special programs to attract female students (this certainly the case of La Sapienza), which recently have decreased a lot their number: another (obviously not meaningful) example: my first year Programming class in CS was made by around 130 students: less than 10 women.

    best

    Nicola

  20. Speaking of women in computing, you might find this interesting (if you do not already know about it). Also, here is the corresponding post from the “Women in Science” blog.

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