A University of Washington lecturer is sparking new debate with an essay claiming that the technology industry is about as close to gender parity as it will ever get because of fundamental differences between men and women, joining the controversial school of thought thrust into the public eye by former Google engineer James Damore.
Earlier this week, Stuart Reges, a principal lecturer at the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science in Seattle, published a lengthy essay defending his perspective titled “Why Women Don’t Code,” on Quillette. He asserts that women are underrepresented in computer science because of personal preferences and choices, rather than systemic forces that exclude them. Reges argues that diversity initiatives should be focused on equal access to opportunity, rather than equal outcomes.
“I believe that women are less likely than men to want to major in computer science and less likely to pursue a career as a software engineer and that this difference between men and women accounts for most of the gender gap we see in computer science degree programs and in Silicon Valley companies,” he writes.
In an interview with GeekWire, Reges elaborated.
“Don’t attribute to oppression that which can be explained by free choice,” he said. “People talk about the problem in tech, that there’s not enough women in tech and they assume that it’s because of oppression. I don’t believe that. I believe that choice is more significant in explaining what’s going on.”
Leilani Battle, a postdoctoral researcher in the Allen School, disagrees. “As a black woman scientist, I have seen first hand how discrimination shuts the door on people, but also how diversity programs can change people’s lives dramatically and for the better,” she said via email.
Women comprise about 30 percent of UW’s computer science school. In the essay, Reges says this is on par with what his colleagues at other universities are seeing, with some exceptions.
“I’m OK with it,” Reges said. “I think we have to be. It doesn’t necessarily upset me. Women are doing quite well in lots of fields.”
But diversity advocates argue that while women aren’t underrepresented in every field, they are in one of the economy’s most lucrative industries: technology. Female-founded companies received just 2 percent of venture capital dollars in 2017.
Since the late 1990s, women have earned about half of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. But the number of computer science degrees awarded to women has decreased from 28 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2013, according to data from the National Science Foundation.
A TechRepublic report found that despite many universities touting near-equal gender ratios for intro computer science classes, the parity doesn’t exist for upper-level students and those that ultimately graduate with computer science degrees. The report cited lack of women peers and role models at multiple levels as a reason for the imbalance.
Women made up 15 percent of engineers and 25 percent of computer/mathematical scientists in 2013, according to the National Science Foundation. The gender disparity in tech has gained more attention in the past few years as more women report stories about toxic workplace cultures.
Last year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler publicly detailed sexual harassment and discrimination she experienced working at the company. That sparked several more women to speak out about similar experiences.
Reges believes that many of the existing statistics about women in computer science are misleading. Here’s how he puts in it the essay:
Computer science has gone through two major boom and bust cycles in the last 40 years. The idea that men drove women from the field is not supported by the data. There has been no period of time when men have been increasing while women have been decreasing. In 48 of the last 50 years the trend was the same for men and women with the percentage of women going up at the same time that the percentage of men went up and the percentage of women going down when the percentage of men went down. But while the trend has been the same, the magnitude of the response has differed significantly.
In both cycles, men disproportionately reacted to the boom part of the cycle and women disproportionately reacted to the bust.
Ed Lazowska, a longtime fixture in the UW Allen School, said that while he disagrees with the conclusions in Reges’ essay, “I found it thought-provoking and I encouraged others on the faculty to read it.”
“I agree that there are differences between genders,” he said. “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. What factors? 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. Failure to communicate the empowering role of computer science in so many fields and careers. I could go on and on.
The Allen School posted a long thread on Twitter detailing the department’s position on diversity.
The Allen School is committed to advancing diversity in our program and in our field. As an academic community and as an industry, we believe we can and should do better when it comes to attracting and supporting women and other underrepresented groups. (2/6)
— Allen School (@uwcse) June 21, 2018
Reges launches into the controversial essay with some remarks about Damore, the Google engineer who circulated an internal memo criticizing the company’s approach to creating a diverse workplace and argued that biological differences contribute to gender disparities in computer science.
Google fired Damore last August. In a note to employees, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that “portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”
“Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives,” Pichai wrote. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
Damore filed a class action lawsuit against Google in January. In his essay, Reges invites the “closet Damores out there to join the discussion and to let people know what you really think.”
“Our community must face the difficult truth that we aren’t likely to make further progress in attracting women to computer science,” Reges writes. “Women can code, but often they don’t want to. We will never reach gender parity. You can shame and fire all of the Damores you find, but that won’t change the underlying reality. It’s time for everyone to be honest, and my honest view is that having 20 percent women in tech is probably the best we are likely to achieve. Accepting that idea doesn’t mean that women should feel unwelcome. Recognizing that women will be in the minority makes me even more appreciative of the women who choose to join us.”
It’s not the first time Reges has circulated a controversial opinion. The New York Times reported he was dismissed from Stanford University in 1991, quoting Stanford officials saying Reges “advocated drug use and boasted of carrying drugs in his backpack while on campus,” and also “paid for alcoholic beverages for students under the age of 21 at a university function.”
In his essay this week, Reges writes that he was “fired from Stanford University for ‘violating campus drug policy’ as a means of challenging the assumptions of the war on drugs.”
“Saying controversial things that might get me fired is nothing new for me,” he writes, adding later, “My attitude in all of these cases has been that I need to speak up and give my honest opinion on controversial issues.”
Battle, the UW postdoctoral researcher, believes that Reges’ perspective on women in the field ignores the underlying factors that discourage women from approaching computer science to begin with.
“It is critical to consider how our positions of power can influence our thinking with respect to programs designed to address discrimination, like diversity programs,” she said. “When people start to shift the balance to eliminate discrimination in areas like computer science, it can feel like a loss of rights for some members of the majority group … This is not the first article to point out that women seem less interested in computer science, but the key follow up question is why? I would argue that this avoidance is not due to natural or biological causes, it is cultural.”
Rowan Zellers, a graduate student in the Allen School, said he was upset by Reges’ essay but unsurprised given the lecturer’s previous comments and interactions with students.
“A lot of people have tried to bring it to the department chair’s attention, the administration’s attention, however, nothing seems to be happening,” he said. “So it’s sort of like, this is a normal even though saying that makes me pretty uncomfortable.”
In a message to the Allen School community, Director Hank Levy said, “All members of the Allen School are entitled to share their ideas freely, and no one among our leadership has any interest in silencing or censoring people even when they express controversial ideas. However, our leadership also has the right and the responsibility to affirm our values and to discuss the many ways in which we are supporting those values.”
Reges doesn’t believe his position is incompatible with his role teaching women to become computer scientists. He says that his goal is to shift the narrative away from negative stories about challenges women face in tech to a celebration of those who do choose to pursue computer science.
“There’s a feeling that women are being excluded,” he said. “I just don’t see it. I work at UW. We’re amazingly welcoming. We’ve done all sorts of things. I’d like to have someone tell me in what way are we excluding women?”
GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper contributed to this story.
Reges’ title has been updated since publication to reflect his position as a principal lecturer.