In The Field

Emerging Tech: Geeks and gendertyping

Who are the stereotypical geeks in movies? The nerd wearing glasses, with bad skin and poor social skills? We all remember the 80s movie Weird Science. Of course they are always male.

The Emerging Technology conference this week at MIT is organized by Technology Review magazine and is a chance to showcase some young hip geeks, the TR35, young innovators, all under 35 years old, who the magazine has honoured for their contributions to business, technology, and the arts. How many of the TR35 are women? It’s a good question, especially as the conference is being trailered this year by a one day workshop on women in technology.

To be opened by Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, the workshop aims to explore solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing women in technology – from questions of leadership style to workplace culture and career changes. It’s a discussion that all of Boston’s universities take seriously, especially since the furore over the 2005 remarks by Lawrence Summers about women and science, which eventually led to the President of Harvard’s resignation.

One question I’ve long wanted an answer to is why certain disciplines – my own chosen field of study, physics, among them – remain so resolutely poor at attracting and retaining women. Rather than fret about innate ability, as Summers famously did, I wonder if it is more to do with the status of a particular field? Physics, as proponents of ‘physics envy’ will attest, was arguably one of the highest status sciences of the early twentieth century.

The American Physical Society has some interesting data on female participation in science PhDs over the latter half of last century. Women taking PhDs in subjects like physics and engineering remain disappointingly few: less than one-fifth of their male colleagues. Far more women were attracted to mathematics and chemistry, around one-half and one-third respectively, with chemistry showing a positive upward trend over the decades. Who would argue that mathematics and chemistry are innately ‘easier’ subjects to study than physics?

The really interesting trends, from the point of view of this meeting, are the numbers of women taking computer science PhDs. When computer science was a young emerging field the numbers of women are surprisingly high, but there is a clear dip as interest in computer science surged in later decades. I would guess that many more men were being attracted to the field. Was this because the status of the field changed? From a low-status occupation to a high-flying finance and techno whizzkid one? This is my suspicion and I’m keen to find out whether the women technology leaders at MIT this week saw their field change in character (and gender) when Silicon Valley and the dotcom boom arrived. And whatever happened to all those early female computer science pioneers?

By the way, the proportion of women among the TR35 winners this year is six out of 35. See the full list here.


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