STEM and the Myth of Perfect Gender Parity

Technology is boring and impersonal. I don’t care about the 0’s and 1’s behind the application I’m using; I just care that it gets the job done so that I can focus on things like travel, culture, interactions between states in the foreign policy battlefield, art exhibitions, and brilliant lines in Kevin Williamson’s latest column.

So why is it that I have to scroll through so many articles about technology? A recent sampling: “We need more women in tech: the data proves it;” “Michelle Obama to Silicon Valley: Make Room for Women in Tech;” and “Man, computer science needs more women.” Now that Google fired James Damore, I can’t even find a safe space from tech gripes on conservative websites!

Consider the article from USA Today College: It starts by quoting Catherina Xu describing herself walking into a computer science classroom and finding only two other women amongst a sea of men; she decides to drop the class. If being a gender minority is “so intimidat[ing],” as she claimed, then didn’t her choice make it harder for those remaining women? So much for sisterhood.

As well, if you are genuinely interested in learning more about a subject, why would it matter how many men or women are in your classes? As a journalism student, I had many experiences similar to Ms. Xu’s, walking into classes that were sixty, seventy, or even eight percent female. In 2013, according to the Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Enrollment, two-thirds of journalism students were women. The gap was especially large in public relations courses.

One male student at the University of Florida was even quoted as saying he felt “pressured to join a STEM field,” before switching to journalism.

Is this a form of discrimination we need to fix? I didn’t feel uncomfortable or discouraged because I loved writing, and I was certain about what kind of career I wanted to pursue when I entered college. Neither did gender disparity ultimately despair Xu, it seems, judging by the fact that she graduated from Stanford with a degree in computer science and a 3.95 GPA.

It is possible to see how someone who isn’t sure what they want to study, or who is easily swayed by social pressure, might end up taking a different course simply because they want to be around people who are more like them. But society isn’t an unnatural human construct—it is the result of natural decisions made by many individuals. In a group of a dozen randomly chosen men and women, each person will act on different preferences, eventually creating what we recognize as social forces. Social pressure can exacerbate natural tendencies, of course, but it doesn’t create those tendencies.

It’s strange that the media and activists have developed such a single-minded focus on the technology industry. If you look across college majors and across jobs, there are discrepancies in the numbers of men and women in all of them, from lows of only four percent and twenty-five percent of women in coal mining and agriculture, for example, to highs of eighty-one percent women in veterinary medicine and ninety-four percent in child day care services. We don’t think it’s a scandal that there aren’t more women in logging, for example. 

Why should technology be any different? We are told it’s a fast-growing industry, with potential for high earnings, but so are many other industries. But if just thirty-five percent of those interested in tech as children are women, and only twenty-eight percent of students with a bachelor’s degree in computer science are women (which is, not coincidentally, the same amount of proprietary software jobs done by women), then why should we say their preferences are wrong?

Harvey Mudd College’s president Maria Klawe has noted that many women just don’t think technology is interesting. I personally think those women are right. But instead of pursuing quotas or crying discrimination, Klawe went about finding solutions to the challenge of encouraging women to learn about technology, including creative ways of introducing computer science to female students who might not have had exposure to the subject as high school students.

Everyone’s preferences are different, and who are we to say that someone like me or my female classmates who chose journalism are wrong? People interested in tech should go right ahead and study it, but we shouldn’t pressure everyone into a field of study or a career they don’t like or demand quotas and regulations just because we think it’s our social responsibility to save them.

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