The View from Abroad

Living and spending my sabbatical in Sweden for more than six months has allowed me to gain a different perspective on a variety of issues in computer science, including those related to gender equity.
Sweden is facing many of the same issues that we face in the U.S. regarding information technology; in particular, a strong demand for workers coupled with a serious drop in student interest in entering the field. As in the U.S., the drop in interest in the field among young women is even more dramatic than among young men.
There are a couple different computing programs at the university I’m visiting. In 1997, the two programs admitted 12 percent and 21 percent women, respectively; in 2001, these two programs admitted 11 percent and 8 percent women, with a newly added third program at 19 percent; and in 2006, the two longer-standing programs admitted 1 percent and 11 percent, with the newer program’s enrollment dropping to 7 percent. To characterize the overall drop in interest, the ‘middle’ program admitted roughly half as many students in 2006 as in 1997.
But isn’t Sweden a society that treats men and women equally? Indeed it is, with many signs of this quite visible. I see many more fathers out with their children than I do in the U.S. – and I live in a liberal neighborhood just over a mile from my university. Two of my Swedish faculty colleagues split their unexpected family obligations, such as staying home with sick kids, very evenly. I see nearly as many fathers as mothers dropping off and picking up their kids at my son’s school. (One day I was complaining to a mother who regularly bikes her son in about when I do, saying that one of our bikes was in need of repair. She said, “My husband and I have a very emancipated marriage – but I draw the line at fixing our bikes!”) Shared custody between divorced parents seems to be the norm. Childcare is universally available and is inexpensive – we are at the top of a sliding scale, and we pay about $120/month for our nine year-old son’s after-school care. The laws provide for paternity leave along with maternity leave. Women hold over 47% of the seats in the Swedish parliament (second highest percentage in the world, after Rwanda!) And so on.
Given this, the more significant drop in interest in computer science among young women seemed especially surprising. In talking about it and thinking about it some more, this seems to be less of a conundrum than I originally imagined. Despite the more egalitarian nature of the Swedish society, many of the same core issues come into play with respect to gender equity in the field.
For example, it is easy for students – and teachers and parents – to falsely believe that computer science is the same as computer programming. And it is easy for students – and teachers and parents – to falsely believe that there is little potential societal impact from computer science. And it is easy for students – and teachers and parents – to falsely believe that people in the field work alone. And it is easy for students – and teachers and parents – to falsely believe that all that is interesting in computer science has either been finished or shipped offshore. For whatever reasons, these issues decrease the interest of a broad swath of prospective students, but they seem to decrease the interest of young women disproportionately. And this seems to be independent, at least in Western cultures, of the degree of gender equity in each society as a whole. I certainly don’t have a well-founded theory of why this is true, but the anecdotal evidence seems indicative nonetheless.
On the one hand, this situation is depressing – even if the U.S. becomes as egalitarian as Sweden, the need for NCWIT may not disappear. On the other hand, there is power in numbers, and with more societies facing similar, critical problems, perhaps we can all make progress more quickly.

In any case, hej då!

David Notkin is a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.

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