Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn't.

We all know there's a huge gender gap in science and engineering. There are lots of theories that purport to explain this, but one I hear frustratingly often is that women score slightly lower on math tests. "Oh, it's statistically proven that women are worse in math than men, so that's why there aren't more women in computer science." Or engineering. Or technology. Or open source software.

It sounds like a compelling reason, and it gets a lot of play. Except, you know what? It’s a lie.

My first degree is in mathematics. So I looked up the studies. I did the math. And it just didn't add up. The research into biologically-linked ability is fascinating, but it simply isn't significant enough to explain the huge gender gap we see in the real world. I used to do this presentation on the back of a napkin for people who tried to spout this misconception to my face, and I finally put it online:

Love it? Hate it? Learn something? Catch the Mathnet reference? Let me know.

These slides have also been posted at my personal blog,, and GHCBloggers. They've been impressively popular on facebook and twitter too, and even got used recently in Kirrily Robert's keynote at ApacheCon. Please feel free to keep passing them on, and I'm sorry I didn't think to post them here sooner!


Laura said...

Terri, these are some awesome slides!

Knowing the women that I know that are interested in high school competitive math, I can say first hand that female students can be very gifted and very hard working, which helps them strive very well.

I met really nice and bright girls through math, and at my high school btw, were a majority in the math program.

Thanks for the slides,