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gender bias

A fellow female grad student with a son recently sent me this e-mail while we were discussing gender bias in computer science:
Just as an aside, I was asking my son about what he wanted to be when he grows up (he's 8), and I asked him if he wanted to be a computer scientist, and he said no because mostly women do that, and then added that he wanted to be a teacher like his dad.

(...not quite what I was going for...)

While it is funny on the surface, it does indicate something about how gender bias is developed at an early age. The reason we were discussing this whole situation is because the representation of women in computer science is one of the lowest percentages of all of the sciences and that percentage is dropping. I suspect that women in our generation, if they have a parent that was in the sciences or engineering, experienced a father who was in the field, not a mother, and that experience may have caused them to develop such a bias without realizing it--and this is before they were ever brought into the educational system and biased by modern teaching practices.

When I mentioned this idea to my friend, she said that,
My mom (who is a social worker) told me when my son was born that babies more often resemble their father early on as nature's way of ensuring that the father accepts them.

In my case, while my father was the one involved in a science field, he was also the one who really encouraged my to use my imagination. While my mother was generally encouraging and proud of my achievements, she seemed neither able nor willing to discuss abstract scientific ideas with me. My father, on the other hand, was willing to discuss all sorts of wild theories, from science to metaphysics, even if he did not have confidence in his knowledge of the topic. Maybe I chose my field not because of which gender was involved with which task (my mother was a homemaker), but rather which parent actively encouraged me to pursue my interests.


Not sure about whether I was influenced by gender: both my parents were university graduates, and both were encouraging. But then, I didn't actually decide my specific field until much closer to the time, but I'd already decided when I was a teenager that I wanted to be a Scientist of some sort. And maybe one could blame Asimov for that, I don't know. I don't think that I was influenced by the fact that one of my favourite fictional characters was a computer programmer (Avon), because I wasn't interested in Comp Sci until after I'd been exposed to programming at school, and even then, when I finally decided what to study in First Year, I intended to do a double degree in Chemistry and Comp. Sci, basically because I liked them and was good at them. And my Chemistry teacher was probably a bigger influence in that than my Maths teacher. Though they were both female, interestingly enough. But I think my favourite teachers in my last couple of years at school were my Chemistry teacher (female, with a PhD), my Physics teacher (male, but also my home-room teacher) and my English teacher (female).

I can't recall that anybody tried to pressure me not to do Comp. Sci. -- but my peers did pressure me to do Medicine. Probably more along the lines of "you're smart, you should do the most high-status thing you can with your brains" -- I don't think gender came into it at all. But while at that point I didn't know what particular science I wanted to do, I did know that I wanted to do Science, not Medicine.

But now that I think about it, I've never really examined why I wanted to do Science...

It was sort of an unspoken expectation that everyone in our family would go to University -- not a pressure to do well, but an expectation that everyone was smart enough to be able to, and, being able to, one would obviously go. One factor also being that, in Australia in those days, going to University did not place an enormous financial burden on people either. But even if it had, I don't think that would have changed the expectation, considering that my father's family were working-class and I think he was probably the only one who went to Uni, with scholarships and such, and he became a Professor; I don't think there was really any expectation that it would be too hard a thing to go to Uni.

But why I wanted to do Science... (shrug) Maybe it was Asimov, maybe it was just my general curiosity - I'd always liked rocks and knowing how things worked, and wondering "why?" -- science was interesting. English was a way of ruining the enjoyment of good books, Art was something I enjoyed but I knew I'd never be good enough at it for it to be anything more than a hobby, and History was sort of interesting but not really relevant.