In Malaysia, women are 52% of CS graduates. So what?

Via BJ Wishinsky (@anitaborg_org), via Gerald Thurman (@nanofoo), a post from the CACM blog, Only the developed world lacks women in computing, by Mark Guzdial.

Mark talks about a study that shows that in Malaysia, 52% of computer science graduates are women. Sure, that’s fantastic. But if his headline is anything to go by, I think Mark’s missing the point pretty badly.

  • How did this get generalised from “In one developing country women are in a slight majority” to “Only in the developed world are women in a minority.” Logic fail.
  • Malaysia is around the 28th highest GDP-PPP in the world according to the World Bank, right near Belgium (29th) and Sweden (31st), and has the highest GDP-PPP per capita in Asia. So it’s arguably not even outside the developed world.
  • If we’re going to talk about women in technology in developing countries, let’s talk about literacy. Throughout the developing world, women’s literacy is key to their economic independence. Focusing on one relatively developed country with a high literacy rate (83% of women vs 89% overall) doesn’t actually tell us anything about women in developing countries. (Hat-tip to Nnenna Nwakanma from Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa for clueing me up in this regard.)
  • We need to consider the status and remuneration of women in IT, too. In Malaysia, women earn only 80% of what men do for the same work, and their average income is only 36% of men’s (source). Having more women in technology, if that work is seen as low-status and is poorly-paid, is not necessarily a win, nor something we should seek to emulate.

Mark wrapped up his description of the Malaysian study with, “Vivian concluded that the gendering of computing is constructed by the West, not at all inherent to the field.” Fair enough. But that’s not what he brought through to the headline: “Only the developed world lacks women in computing.”

Too many times, I’ve heard this study referred to in a way that says, “The lack of women in the western tech industry is a localised problem,” and implies, “so sexism isn’t as big an issue as you think it is.”

7 thoughts on “In Malaysia, women are 52% of CS graduates. So what?

  1. Mary

    An anecdotal report from an international (to Malaysia) woman speaker at MSC Malaysia’s Open Source Conference also indicates that women in Malaysia’s IT field disproportionately tend to leave or never enter technical roles, so when this is looked at for any particular country or society, it’s also worth checking the eventual career paths of the women trained in IT.

    I would be very interested in hearing about the gendering of computing in non-Western countries in general.

  2. Yvi

    Thanks for pointing out these things. When I read the headline I also thought of the first two points – I don’t think of Malaysia as being part of the ‘non-developed world’ or whatever it is apparently called anyway.

  3. Mark Guzdial

    Hi Skud! The title wasn’t drawn from the comments on Malaysia, but from the comments by Maria Charles, who explicitly drew the developed vs. developing world contrast. My post was purposefully short, reporting on a series of talks at an NCWIT meeting, and was not meant to be a broad coverage of issues related to the treatment of women in Malaysia (or anywhere else for that matter).

  4. Asad

    It turns out that political development and national wealth are not linearly related, contra Tom Friedman, etc.

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