Friday, March 6, 2009

My Comments to the ACM, Re: Women in Computing - Take 2

I indicated in my last post that I would be writing about property in this essay. Since then, I had the opportunity to test the new CACM beta site and leave a comment on the February CACM feature article, entitled "Women in Computing - Take 2." I will defer my next essay on property until next week.

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is the monthly periodical published by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The ACM is arguably the most respected computing association in the world (of which I am a member).

The ACM is currently presided over by Professor Dame Wendy Hall, of the University of Southampton in the UK. Over the past few years, I have noticed a very focused effort within the ACM to promote the "equal representation" of women in the field of computing. Whether this is due to notable fact that our president is a woman, I do not know.

In any case, the article in question goes into some detail about the numerous strategies that can be employed to bring equal representation to women in the field of computing. Since my comments tend toward exposition, they typically get rejected by moderators. Also, since the idea of egalitarianism is appropriate to the topic of this blog, I am publishing my comments below. The argument I make can be applied to other areas besides computing:

I often read about how women are underrepresented in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.(STEM) I have always wondered exactly what "underrepresented" means. I now see that this is a function of population, given that "the gains listed here, while encouraging, stop short of achieving equal representation and point to the fact that much work has yet to be done."1 Ideally, there would be an equal number of men and women in the field.

Based on this same reasoning, I fear that the Amish are woefully underrepresented, as a minority, in the field of computing. Yet to achieve equity in this demographic would require a certain cultural destructiveness - an intrusion into the lives of people who don't wish to participate in the first place.

Equal participation between men an women in the field of computing is based on unexamined premises. It assumes a general equality in psychological, mental, cultural, biological, and lifestyle aspects of both men and women. It is a sort of egalitarianism that seeks to erase distinctions in order to serve an agenda.

In fact, the APA recently published a press release about a study that examined the participation of women in technical fields. The press release contains the following text:

"Even though institutional barriers and discrimination exist, these influences still cannot explain why women are not entering or staying in STEM careers... The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalize the sexes in these fields, especially given that women's career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them towards other careers..."2

While it is important to eliminate all unfairness to women who demonstrate interest in pursuing technical careers, it may be that pushing the ideal of "equal" representation is akin to forcing computer jobs onto the Amish. What valuable attributes are being forced out in order to equalize the sexes? Such an approach is actually detrimental to the notion of diversity. Normalizing people rather detracts from the qualities that make them distinct from each other.

In mathematics, the inequality of values is what makes them diverse and gives them their unique and important features. Equations can only evaluate truthfully when the variables have the right value, regardless of how great or small.

Men and women are not the same. The numeric value "two" is not the same as the value "seven." In math, we do not hesitate to call two things that are not the same unequal. In politics and activism, however, it just isn't done. We must all be different yet equal. Thomas Hobbes once called that kind of logic "absurd."

We have a cultural confusion about what equality means when applied to people. We ought to examine the premise of equality before advocating beyond fairness.




1. Women in Computing - Take 2. By Maria Klawe, Telle Whitney, and Caroline Simard. CACM, 02/09 Vol. 52 No. 2

2. APA Press Release, March 3, 2009. http://www.apa.org/releases/women-math.html

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