A University of Washington computer-science teacher’s essay on why more women don’t go into tech has drawn a swift rebuke from professors in the school.
For thousands of undergrads at the University of Washington, Stuart Reges is the man who introduces them to computer science — a senior lecturer who teaches entry-level coding in a packed lecture hall every quarter, and has won awards for his teaching.
Now Reges has waded into one of tech’s most volatile issues by arguing that the number of women going into the industry has stagnated because women simply aren’t interested in computer science.
His 4,580-word essay headlined “Why Women Don’t Code,” is nuanced, and difficult to summarize in a few sentences. But it provoked an immediate backlash at the UW, where there has been a long-running effort to increase the number of women and people of color in computer science and engineering.
In the essay, Reges argues that women are unlikely to ever make up more than 20 percent of tech employees — perhaps because, according to research he cites, boys are better at math and science, and girls are better at reading.
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“Men and women are different, and they make different choices,” Reges said in an interview Friday. “The different choices they make explain a lot of what we see in terms of lower percentages of women going into tech.”
UW professor Sapna Cheryan says her own research shows something different.
“In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence that students’ preferences for certain fields are powerfully shaped by the perceived social environment of these fields,” said Cheryan in an email.
An associate professor of psychology, Cheryan has conducted a series of experiments which show that simply redesigning a tech office environment — for example, taking away “Star Trek” posters and video games, and replacing them with art and nature posters — increase a women’s sense of belonging in the field.
In another paper, she found that “gender disparities exist when a field has both a masculine culture (that is, signals to women that they belong there less than men) and a lack of mandatory precollege coursework.”
UW professor Andy Ko said there’s a broad scientific consensus that the culture of a learning community, and its alignment with a learner’s values and identity, is what determines their interest in joining it. When college computer-science departments change their culture, the number of women participating increases, he said.
“The only thing right about Stuart’s article was that women are generally less interested in CS (computer science) than men,” said Ko, an associate professor in the UW’s Information School and adjunct associate professor in Computer Science & Engineering (CSE). “He was just wrong about why.”
And he said that for Reges “to share opinions, weakly supported by cherry-picked, misinterpreted scientific studies is not a good representation of the caliber of expertise at the university, or its values, or CSE, or the broader university’s efforts at diversity and equity.”
Reges says he’s speaking out because he worries that descriptions of the tech industry as toxic for women will have the self-perpetuating effect of keeping women out of the industry. He also fears that the issue has become so untouchable that “you’re not allowed to discuss this, and anyone who discusses this should be punished or fired.”
That happened to James Damore, a Google employee who wrote a memorandum last August arguing that biological differences play a role in the shortage of women in tech and leadership positions. Google fired Damore for advancing “harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Damore is now suing Google.
Reges’ essay drew a swift rebuke from Hank Levy, the director of the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Two days after it was published, Levy sent a memo to the Allen School community saying the school disagreed with the essay’s conclusions, and he emphasized the school’s belief in the value of diversity in tech. Levy listed a dozen different efforts the university has led to increase diversity and inclusion.
“We acknowledge that we have a long way to go, but these efforts work,” Levy wrote, noting that enrollment in computer science undergraduate and Ph.D. programs is around 30 percent women — up from 20 percent a decade ago. “We do not believe that where we are today is the best we are likely to achieve.”
UW computer-science professor Ed Lazowska said he found Reges’ essay thought-provoking, but that he disagreed with its conclusions.
“I agree that there are differences between genders,” he said in an email. “But I believe that there are so many other factors at work that we can’t possibly say what the role of gender differences might be.”
Those factors include parental encouragement and expectations, early exposure to technology, stereotypes about programmers and programming, perceptions of the work culture in the software industry, socioeconomic factors, sexual harassment and a failure to communicate the empowering role of computer science. “I could go on and on,” Lazowska said.
The essay gained widespread attention after Jordan B. Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor and outspoken critic of political correctness, tweeted a link to it. Peterson wrote: “Make no mistake about it: The Damore incident has already established a precedent. Watch what you say. Or else.”
Peterson has hundreds of thousands of followers, and the tweet had been liked more than 1,700 times by Friday.
Many women cite sexual harassment in the tech industry as one of the reasons why they leave, or don’t pursue computer science. And Reges acknowledged that, as a man, he may not understand the breadth of sexual-harassment issues that women have experienced in the tech culture.
“I believe it’s an issue,” he said of sexual harassment, adding, “I find it hard to believe it explains what we’ve been seeing for so many years. But, I say in my article that I could be wrong.”
He said he hopes the essay sparks further dialogue, and that he’s already got a lunch invitation with several faculty members who want to talk more about the issue. What he doesn’t want is to be expelled for his ideas. “With Damore, I didn’t like the idea you just banish him from the community.”
As a principal lecturer at the UW, Reges doesn’t have tenure, and he acknowledges that he could lose his job over the controversy, although he doesn’t think that will happen.
“I guess I still will be surprised if I’m punished for this,” he said. “I know people are angry, but I think they’ll ultimately decide I have the right to speak my mind.”