We examined social awkwardness as a possible reason for women leaving computer science. Based on the interviews, we found that women female social awkwardness for many reasons: (1) having to work harder to prove their value, (2) having to dress in a certain way to be taken seriously, and (3) expending effort to not send mixed signals to their male counterparts who might mistake their friendliness for romantic interest. An MIT study, supports and adds to (3).
Several female graduate students commented that they feel they have to work harder to be taken seriously or to prove that they are valuable. One commented, In groups I feel like I have to work a little harder to prove I'm valuable. Another female graduate student suggested that to be taken seriously, she had to fit the mold of a typical woman in computer science in terms of appearance: "If I look good and dress well, theyre less inclined to think Im intelligent. If Im grubby one day, they might think I know about CS, then if Im dolled up another day they might think or not. Yet another female graduate student commented that she felt graduate school was easier for males than females in terms of social interactions. She remarked, Socially, I just find myself in awkward situations. Guys hit on me all the time, including a TA. My friendliness gets mistaken for flirtation or romantic interest. Why cant a girl just kick back and hang out with a guy without him and everyone else thinking that there is a romantic involvement! I had lunch with a male peer and everyone regarded it as a date. Its ridiculous. Just this past year, three CS peers/friends mistook my friendliness for romantic interest, resulting in things becoming awkward between us. I feel like I have to change my behavior so I dont send mixed signals.
A study, titled "Barriers to Equality in Academia: Women in Computer Science at M.I.T.", conducted by female graduate students and research staff in the Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T. found several contributors to social awkwardness motivating female graduate students to leave computer science: acceptable behavior for women, misplaced expectations, unwanted attention, and the fishbowl syndrome.
The acceptable behavior for women leads to a double bind. On one hand, women are told that they need to act masculine and need to be aggressive or assertive to be taken seriously and to achieve academic success. On the other hand, when a woman does display masculine, aggressive, or assertive behavior, she is regarded as too pushy, forceful, hostile, or even bitchy. This leads to a double bind for women and most feel there is no way for them to be accepted by their colleagues.
Very closely related, mens expectations of how a woman should behave often cause a womans actions to be misinterpreted. For example, in the study, a female graduate student commented, All I did was say Hi to a male graduate student, and the next time I saw him, he asked me out. Another interviewee narrated:
Professor Jones and I were working late on a project, and we decided to grab something to eat. I thought wed go for a sandwich. Imagine how I felt when we drove up to a fancy, candle-lit restaurant. I didnt want to go in because it seemed too much like date situation, but he insisted and also wouldnt let me pay for my dinner. I felt as if I had been forced into going on a date with him, and after that I always felt nervous about being alone with him."
Women in the computer science academia environment often feel that they are viewed as potential dates, and it is difficult to keep a professional relationship from being mistakenly interpreted as a romantic one. This causes women to feel socially uncomfortable or awkward.
Since computer science is male-dominated, women receive much unwanted attention. Women are often approached romantically by colleagues, particularly ones in supervisory roles. The issue for women is that they do not know how to turn down romantic overtures without disrupting their professional relationships. Worse yet, some romantic overtures involve uncomfortable physical contact. One student stated, When I was sitting at my terminal typing, a male faculty member came up behind me and started rubbing my neck and shoulders. Women find these romantic overtures as bothersome and unacceptable, making them feel socially awkward.
The fishbowl syndrome is a form of unwanted attention. The difference is that the unwanted attention women graduate students receive is much more subtle, including being stared at in class, group meetings, and even their offices. Some women have even been followed around by their male colleagues. One student commented, I always feel as if I am being pursued. I also feel like Im in a spotlight. All my actions are under close scrutiny and out of place. This makes women feel very uncomfortable and out of place.
All these factors cause women to feel socially awkward and uncomfortable, thereby causing them to leave their program of study in computer science. The problem of social awkwardness must be dealt with quickly by changing the social perception of women and by getting more women in computer science so the small percentage that are do not feel out of place.