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Finished Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. I found this to be simultaneously a very important book and a rather dull book. I would have found the book fascinating 5 years ago. But now I have spent a summer at CMU interacting with the women@scs group; I have seen Jane Margolis speak twice (once with Allan Fisher); I have seen many other wonderful speakers talk about women in computing; I have given miniature versions of such talks myself. The material in this book has become such a part of my life, such a part of how I relate to my field of choice, that actually reading the material felt a little redundant.

Thus, if you are at all interested in issues of gender and computing (and if you are in the field of computing, you ought to be), you should read this book. If you are really interested in issues of gender and computing, you should read it earlier rather than later because you will have to read it eventually, and the sooner you read it, the more novel the material will be.

(I am now excited to read Margolis's latest book, Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, because I am not very familiar with issues of race in the computing field.)
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I just finished an interesting article on the gender gap in math. The interesting observation from the article is that there is a correlation between gender equality in a country and having a small gender gap. To the authors, this indicates that the gender gap in mathematics is largely a social construct.

However, the same studies show indication that there may be some biological element involved. Regardless of the gender gap, women do better in reading than in math and men do better in math than in reading. Even more interesting is the data which indicates that women do better in arithmetic than geometry and men do better in geometry than arithmetic.

This implies two things to me. First, cultural factors obviously play a huge role in performance on exams. Having just finished Blink (summary coming soonish), this is no surprise. People are much more influenced by the world around them than they accept. People primed with sentences that include a polite words subsequently act more polite than those primed with sentences that include aggressive words. Black students have been seen to do poorer on exams when they were reminded of their race (e.g., by having to note their race on the exam sheet).

Second, there may be a biological component to gender differences in mathematics. However, if you look more closely, the gender differences are most pronounced within certain parts of mathematics. Thus, it is more relevant to say that "males are better at spatial reasoning" than it is to say that "males are better at math". (I would guess that something similar would be found if one was to do a deeper analysis of the statement "females are better at reading", but I am not familiar with any such work.)

Yet, while this is all interesting, when it comes down to it, I do not think the truth or falsehood of biological differences in aptitude really matters. The current gap in employment of men and women in the STEM fields seems to be overwhelmingly due to the perception of those fields in the eyes of prospective members of those fields.

To take an example from the field I am familiar with, lots of people, both men and women, have no desire to go into CS because of the nerdy stereotype. Now, I work at Google, so I know for a fact that there exist brilliant software engineers who are nerdy and brilliant software engineers that could come across as perfectly normal people; there are people who devote their life to programming, and people who work their days and then go home to be with their families or to swim or to be movie buffs or whatever. There is an attitude in software engineering that you can only be a good software engineer if you dedicate your whole life, body and soul, to programming. This attitude turns good people away from the field.

Until we have addressed the cultural and institutional issues that keep people out of STEM fields, biological differences just do not matter. Their effect is little more than noise in the face of the much larger cultural forces.
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Finished A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom. This book describes the history of marriage as it relates to modern marriage in America. The lives of wives in the ancient world are examined by looking at wives in the Bible, Greek wives, and Roman wives. Yalom then marches on through history, examining Medieval Europe, early Protestant wives, republican wives in America and France, Victorian wives in England and the U.S. (including those on the frontier). She then gets into the more modern era and looks at the changing role of women and wives in the late 19th century and the history of issues such as sex, contraception, and abortion in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Finally, she looks at wives in WWII and briefly examines how the role of the wife has changed in the last 50 years.

The common theme of this book is that what it means to be a wife is always changing with time and with culture. The so-called traditional nuclear family of a mother homemaker, a father breadwinner, and a couple of children is actually no more common than many other modes of family life. Throughout history, there have been times and places where both parents have worked, where children were sent elsewhere once they reached a certain ages, and where the household was much more diverse (extended family, servants, apprentices, etc.). Sometimes women were assumed to be more full of sexual desires than men and sometimes women were assumed to be frigid towers of purity.

Marriage can be an economic relationship, a political relationship, or a emotional relationship. These days, we think that it should be primarily an emotional relationship, but throughout much of history, that idea was ridiculous; marriage was a way to solidify political ties or increase your economic worth. Over time, love became an important factor in choosing a spouse, but it is only recently (since women started becoming more independent, in fact) that love and personality became the primary factors when choosing a spouse.

Yalom also makes the point that what seem like modern issues about sex, contraception, and abortion actually have histories going back hundreds of years (and a public history going back about 150 years). The unequal sexual freedoms accepted for men and women have been the issue of private discussion many centuries, and women have always shared the secrets of contraception and medicinally induced abortions since at least the middle ages. Ancient cultures practiced infanticide, and while it was never approved, there were times when it was certainly ignored. What changed in the last 150 years is that this discussion has become public.

In short, the role of the wife is constantly evolving (as are the closely related issues of the husband, children, and sex). Acknowledging this is important; it shows the error in thinking that marriage is now corrupted and ruined and that marriages of the past fit some idealized perfect mold. Marriage has always been changing; marriages may be less stable today, but beating ones wife and children is no longer acceptable. It is neither going downhill nor approaching some ideal; like all human institutions, it is just changing in response to the world around it and will continue to do so.
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I am having something of a moral dilemma. I want to get my brother The Dangerous Book for Boys for his birthday, but the book also really bugs me. It is certainly a good book, but it is also exclusionary, and that really bugs me. People say that just because it says "for Boys" doesn't mean girls cannot read it, but it means girls will not read it, and may mean that boys will think girls cannot do these things. Also, although in the vast minority of content, it contains bits that say things like boys should carry handkerchiefs so they can lend it to crying girls.

These points may seem minor, but especially when given to children, they are an important part of how our gender attitudes form. I am all for all children learning how to tie knots and learning about Shakespeare, but I am against any implication that those things are exclusively boy things.

I think I'll get it, but it will make me squeemish.
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An open thread for your enjoyment.

Discuss how prostitution, briefly defined as an exchange of taxable goods for sex, differs from or is similar to other exchanges of money for action that are legal or illegal. As you consider your response, here are suggestions for activities or professions to contract against or compare to. Legal: stripper, farm worker, factory worker, masseuse, office worker, house keeper, cook. Illegal: selling votes.
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Finished The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. An extremely excellent book. It would take too long to go through everything, but I will try to hit some highlights. Friedan wrote this book to explore a problem she saw in American society in the 40s and 50s. Women in America were expected to be nothing more than housewives. By "nothing more than housewives and mother"s, I do not mean to imply that being a housewife and mother is not a worthwhile thing to do. Society at that time, however, expected that role to fulfill women completely and for her whole life. Such an expectation would be as silly as expecting me to find complete fulfillment in being nothing more than a software engineer. I love what I do, but if I were expected to have to be the only thing in my life, I would laugh at the expectation.

Friedan is opposed to the notion that all women are the same and will be fulfilled by the same things. The society surrounding her presented an image of the happy house wife joyfully scrubbing her floor and using her new and shiny vacuum cleaner. This image, largely created by the media (to sell more stuff) did not take into account that different women are, well, different. In some ways, things have gotten worse in that regard. We are constantly bombarded by media that pushes us to make ourselves over in some media image. There is more variety but, regardless of gender, the message is that you should be what you are told to be rather than looking into yourself and discovering what you want to be.

Now that most women have careers, we can look back and think that it was naive of Friedan to think that a career would cause women to break away from spoon fed images and find fulfillment. Many women have found fulfillment in their careers, but many others (women and men) have not. Fulfillment comes from the process of self discovery. When women had to push themselves out of the comfort zone of the home to start a career, perhaps starting a career was equivalent to finding oneself. However, now that it is an assumed part of the life of a woman, a career can be, and often is, just another thing to do. Yet the answer is not, as some people seem to think, sending women back to the home to magically find fulfillment there. Whatever the answer is, it is not simple, it is not the same for everyone, and it is internal, not external.

Women are both better off and worse off than men when it comes to freedom to find fulfillment. On the one hand, women are expected to be perfects wives, mothers, and professionals. When a woman chooses to forgo one of these rolls completely, she is vilified (largely by other women!) and and seen as unnatural, if she gives up marriage or children, or anti-progress, if she gives up a career. On the other hand, at least women have that choice. While men technically can take on nurturing roles in their families, it is still considered strange, and there are not many role models for men who want to stay home. For both men and women, there is an expectation that fulfillment comes from something external: a career, family, religion, possessions, money, image. This seems reductionist and, really, a bit silly.

The Feminine Mystique was a start. What's the next step? I don't know, but it won't be simple, it won't be obvious, and it will involve women and men moving forward together.
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I have been reading The Feminine Mystique and, thus far, it is inspiring me to conclude that the image of femininity and motherhood pushed onto the American public in the late 1940's and the 1950's did just as much harm to the idea of a stay-at-home parent as the push for women to have full-time careers. A mother of that period was seen as abnormal if she wanted to be anything more than a stay-at-home mother and wife. This is more than criticizing women who wanted to have a career. Women were portrayed by the media as having no interests outside of their home and family except, perhaps, a not too active role in the church or PTA. Women were not expected to be interested in (or even have the capacity to be interested in) politics, art, economics, science, or anything that could not be related directly to the home and children.

This sort of attitude would make anyone hate the home. It would make anyone hate whatever it was they did. Suppose society expected you to have no interests outside of your job. No hobbies, no interest in family, no interest in social causes, no interest in politics. Imagine if you were expected to find total and complete fulfillment doing your job and only your job. I would guess that most people, even if they loved their job to start, would eventually come to hate it and to see it as a trap. I suspect that most people would also have the same misconception as modern society and blame the job rather than the unrealistic attitudes that surround it.

Because of the mid-century attitudes towards the role of women, the idea of being a stay-at-home parent has been marred in ways that are only now starting to be mended. Because staying at home did not keep the unreasonable promise of being all fulfilling, it has been seen as unfulfilling. I believe that things are improving now. Thanks, in part, to time showing that this extreme is as damaging as the other.

Another other important change has been the weakening of the idea that a stay-at-home parent can have no interests outside the home. The Internet plays an important, certainly not exclusive, role in this change. It seems that I regularly see bloggers, both male and female (mostly male because of the separate issue of gender imbalances in the blogging community, but that's a separate discussion) saying that, assuming their family can make it work financially, they want to stay at home with their children. They discuss the importance of their family and, just as importantly, the ways that their online network allows them to stay engaged with the world.

There are still many issues. How do we restructure the expectations of businesses for families where neither partner wants to stay at home full time? Or for families where no employee wants to be a slave to the office, even if one partner does stay at home? How do we change expectations so that women do not feel guilty whether they choose to stay at home or have a career? How do we change expectations so that a stay-at-home dad (or a male daycare worker) are not looked at as suspect? How do we achieve world peace with taffy and pudding for all?

Much needs to change, yet progress is being made.
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This month, O'Reilly is having a series of essays by women in technology. Today's essay is by Maria Klawe, mathematician, computer scientist, and president of Harvey Mudd College. Klawe's essay is about the change that has happened over the last 50 years for women in technology. The essay is mostly optimistic. However, there are two areas where progress has been disappointing: computer science participation and leadership positions. I would start quoting the key bits, but I cannot choose just one (or two or three) paragraphs. Usually, it seems these kinds of essays ignore the progress or ignore the problems. This essay manages to address both. Read it!
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Apparently, a study found that an angry woman in the workplace is judged much more negatively than an angry man. These days, discrimination against women is, for the most part, not explicit (despite the fact that one of my co-workers today expressed the opinion that it should be okay to not hire someone if they have an employment gap or say they want to have children). The discrimination is more subtle but more deeply ingrained. Men and women alike hold different attitudes towards a person based on a that person's gender.

So now what do we do? Our challenge will, in some ways, take more effort than those of the past. This problem cannot be solved with laws, and I do not think that it will be solved by time alone. What can we do, what can we actively do, to decrease the gender bias that both women and men when evaluating others? How can we change things so that anger is not seen as something assertive in men and unstable in women? How do you get rid of biases that you yourself subconsciously hold?
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Finished She's Such a Geek: Women Write about Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff edited by Analee Newitz and Charlie Anders. This book is a collection of essays on women about what it is like to be a female nerd. The essays provide a view in the the huge number of ways one can be a geeky woman.

Some of the women are still working with science and technology, some have stopped, some never have (actually, a lot of them are now writers, but that, I would guess, is a sampling bias). Some of the women embraced their nerdiness from a young age, some denied it for a period, and some of them rejected their nerdiness for awhile. All of the women in this book love their particular brand of geekiness.

There are, I think, two main themes of the essays as a whole. The first is that we girl geeks exist (and are pretty awesome!). The second theme is how women cope with the societal conflict between being feminine and being a geek. Some of the girl geeks reconciled this by denying their femininity. Others divided their lives into the sphere where they were feminine and the sphere where they were geeky. Others decided that they could be both, expectations be damned.

I highly recommend this book.
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We have not yet reached gender equality in this country, but what we have left to do pales in comparison to the situation of women in Iraq. It makes me so sad.
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I am not going to say anything about this except to comment on a quote from the end of this article:
Whelan, an abortion opponent, said ... "It would seem to me that their religious faith was irrelevant."
Come now, let's be honest with ourselves.

Edited to leave only the relevant part of the comment. The only point I was trying to make is that it is silly to claim that the religigious beliefs of the judges is irrelevant. The judges are certainly trained to make the beliefs less directly relevant to their decision, but the fundamental beliefs of a person are never irrelevant to any decision that they make.
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The Wall Street Journal had an interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. Hewlett was discussing the question of why there are not more women in the high power positions in companies. One section in particular caught my eye.
WSJ: How would you describe a nonlinear female career?

MS. HEWLETT: About 37% of women take an off-ramp at some point in their career, meaning they quit their jobs -- but just for an average 2.2 years. Another substantial number take scenic routes for a while -- intentionally not ratcheting up their assignments. For instance, 36% of highly qualified women have sought part-time jobs for some period, while others have declined promotions or deliberately chosen jobs with fewer responsibilities.

WSJ: Can women who off-ramp get back on track easily?

MS. HEWLETT: That's the problem. The vast majority of them -- 93% -- want to return to work, for financial reasons and because they like their careers. But once a woman stops working for even a year or two, opportunities to re-enter are few and far between. Just 73% land jobs, and 24% of these end up having to take part-time jobs.
I would guess similar issues apply for men who choose to take a career break.

As a person who will either take a career break or have a spouse who will take a career break, I find this worrisome. It would be interesting to see studies on why these women have such a difficult time getting back into their careers.
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I just received a statement from Edward Jones. It contained a terribly condescending advertisment
Financial Security: Not for Men Only
If you're a woman, chances are that you'll be solely responsible for all your financial decisions at some point in your life. How prepared are you? Gather your mother, daughter, sister and friends, and join us Tuesday, May 8 for "Take Charge of Your Financial Security," a special program addressing the unique financial needs of women.
I am fairly certain that my financial security is well above average amongst men or women.
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Finished The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir. I decided to read this book after seeing the quote that motivated De Beauvoir to write the book.
One day I wanted to explain myself to myself... And it struck me with a sort of surprise that the first thing I had to say was 'I am a woman.'
De Beauvoir presents the idea that women have been set up over the centuries as the ultimate "Other". Otherness is the idea that people need to define something or someone as not the self to be able to define the self. On an individual level, everyone outside your own head is Other, but, so De Beauvoir claims, on a societal level women and the ideal of femininity has been set up as Other.

De Beauvoir claims that society defines normal as masculine. That was certainly true when she wrote this book in the 1940's, and I think it is true today. Strength, power, rationality are all defined by society is good, while weakness, emotion, and intuition are defined as bad. I was uncomfortable at first with labeling the first set of attributes masculine and the second feminine, but I realized that De Beauvoir is considering idealized societal archetypes that (annoyingly) still hold. It is still considered odd for a woman to desire power or a man to be emotional.

The book discusses how these ideals are embedded in society. De Beauvoir's fundamental argument is that traits such as rationality can and should be shared by all humans, but the structure of society has withheld them from women. I agree with her general argument, but I sometimes was annoyed with De Beauvoir's presentation. Justification consists mostly of examples strung together to paint the worst picture of women. The examples are too specific to be generally convincing. She seems to largely draw her case from psychological literature that discusses particularly neurotic women; it is relatively rare that she discusses the case of the average woman.

De Beauvoir also seems to hate women and idealize the world of men. She wants women to acquire masculine traits and lose feminine traits. She seems to imply men have the perfect life. For example, she discusses the limitations of the home in providing a fulfilling career for women and makes the assumption that most men are fulfilled by their jobs. In general, she writes as if men have no problems. Yet I am sure there are enough cases in the psycological literature that a book can be written that makes as sorry a case for the sad plight of men.

Going off topic a bit, I am always annoyed at those strains of feminism that assume the feminine is less valuable than the masculine. We have gotten to a point where it is generally acceptable for a woman to have so called masculine traits, but it is still unacceptable for men to have feminine traits. Focusing on the feminine plight was a logical place to start; the masculine traits are the ones associated with the power to repress and abuse others, and women needed to escape from that. However, the problems facing women now, from home/work balancing to wanting to wear skirts and still be taken seriously, are largely related to balancing of feminine and masculine. Men and women need to come to respect feminine qualities and recognize them in everyone. In short, all of these masculine and feminine qualities about need to lose their gender and be recognized as human.
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Now, you can never completely trust media coverage, but according to an MSNBC article on a study about the behavioral affects of day care the study defined child care as "care by anyone other than the child’s mother who was regularly scheduled for at least 10 hours per week". The key word in there being "mother". Excuse me? Even if it would only make a small difference in the number of children counted as in child care, that definition should read "parents" or "mother or father" or even, if we really want to be general "legal guardians".
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I wonder if people who are against birth control pills because they think they cause abortion will be against male birth control pills when/if they become available? I wonder what the excuse will be this time?

On an unrelated note, I got to take a telephone survey about "chronic public inebriation". I am amused. Mostly because of the phrase "chronic public inebriation".
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An interesting commentary on women and technology. My favorite part:
What I find most confounding, though, is this idea that men are using technology to do important things like say, figuring out quantum mechanics on their PSPs or strategizing military action in Iraq on their RAZR phones while women are just using their iPods as mirrors to put on lipstick.

Oh, and be warned, there will probably be lots of random posts today. I need to catch up on a week's worth of "that's interesting, I should tell people about that".


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Erika RS

May 2012

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