Why don’t more women code?
Stuart Reges believes he has an answer to that difficult question, one that the tech industry has been wrestling with for years. But far from resolving the matter, Reges’ essay explaining his theory stirred up more questions, debate, controversy, and — in many cases — outrage.
Reges is a principal lecturer at the University of Washington’s Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. Earlier this month, he published a lengthy essay titled “Why Women Don’t Code,” on Quillette. In it, he claimed that women are underrepresented in computer science because of personal preference, not because institutional barriers deter them from pursuing careers in tech. Reges also said that at 30 percent women, the UW is not likely to make significant headway in narrowing the gender gap among students.
We sat down with Reges to discuss his controversial position for the GeekWire Podcast. We also chatted with Ruchika Tulshyan, author of “The Diversity Advantage” and an adjunct instructor at Seattle University, to get an alternative perspective. Listen below and continue reading for details.
“The support for unconscious bias is pretty weak, and unraveling more day by day,” Reges said in the interview. “I don’t think there is strong scientific evidence. It fits a nice political narrative that we live in an oppressive society. It’s all about sexism and the patriarchy, but I don’t believe that that is backed up by scientific evidence.”
That’s a hard pill for many in the university community to swallow. Tulshyan has done research on gender bias and wage inequality on tech. She also advises companies on diversity and inclusion. Her work has led her to a very different conclusion than the one put forth by Reges.
“There’s [a] very, very strong body of evidence,” she said. “I mean, make of Harvard what you will, but whether it’s the Harvard Business School, whether it’s Harvard Kennedy School, whether it’s their psychology department, organizational behavior, I mean, it is extremely, extremely difficult, to argue against the evidence … I feel like we’re debating whether the earth is flat at this point.”
But Reges subscribes to a different school of thought. In his essay, he aligns himself with James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired for publishing his theory on why it’s so hard to get more women in tech. Damore and Reges argue that women are less interested in computer science than men because of fundamental differences between the two.
Reges says that trying to parse whether those differences are biological or environmental is “a distraction.” But Tulshyan believes it is important to understand how personal preference is shaped by social pressures because the environment in which women make career decisions can be changed.
“There are fundamental differences between men and women in the way that they’ve been conditioned, not in the way that they’ve been hardwired,” she said.
Women make up about 30 percent of the University of Washington’s computer science department. That’s higher than the 18 percent average across the country, but Reges believes UW has reached a plateau. He doesn’t think any school is likely to get closer to 50-50. In his essay, Reges argued that as long as we’re creating equal opportunities for women, we shouldn’t worry as much about equal results.
“We could celebrate,” he said. “Maybe 30 percent is a reason to celebrate. Maybe we’ve done a great job.”
In the wake of the essay, many UW students, professors, and other members of the community publicly disagreed with Reges. Among them is Allen School Director Hank Levy. He circulated an initial statement challenging Reges’ theory to the UW community. On Tuesday, he put out a follow-up statement that goes further in its criticism.
“To be clear: I and other members of the Allen School leadership think Reges and his editorial are wrong about the causes of the gender disparity in computing and the futility of aiming for greater diversity,” Levy said in the new statement. “The existence of gender differences and of different choices being made as a result is not an adequate explanation for why more women are not going into computer science. Bias, whether implicit or explicit, is an issue for our industry. And 20 percent women in tech is not the best that the industry can hope to do.”
Reges published this essay, in part, to find out whether we can still have a robust debate over sensitive topics. He admits he could face the same fate as Damore and be fired for sharing his “honest opinion.” To him, it’s a question of free speech.
“People are calling for me to be fired, for giving my honest opinion, that this idea is so unacceptable that we must purge the faculty of anyone who has these ideas,” he said. “That’s really dangerous.”
But to Tulshyan, the issue is less about free speech and more about the wellbeing of Reges’ students. She thinks universities have a responsibility to make students feel welcome and supported.
“You can imagine for those women in computer science at UW, think of all the barriers that they overcame anyway to be there,” she said. “And then to have to deal with this? It must be so hard.”
Podcast editing and production by GeekWire’s Clare McGrane.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify that Tulshyan is currently an adjunct instructor at Seattle University. She was previously an instructor at UW.