The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 11 Issue 93

Monday 17 June 1991


o Formalism, women, political correctness, etc. [MORE, by popular demand!]
Barbara Simons
Alex Martelli
Christopher Maeda
Pete Mellor
Robert J. Reschly Jr.
Lance Norskog
Michael Tobis
Richard A. O'Keefe
Bill Murray
Eric Florack
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Formalism and women

Fri, 14 Jun 91 10:08:25 PDT
I have found the discussion on formalism and women quite disturbing.  For
starters, I suggest that we attempt to minimize or completely eliminate the use
of two loaded phrases: 'Politically Correct' and 'sexist'.  They push people's
buttons and result in heated, but not necessarily rational, discussions.
Instead of using loaded words, let's specify whatever it is that bothers us.
This might lead to a calm discussion and possibly even a deeper understanding
of the issues.

I am strongly opposed to efforts at university campuses to penalize people for
what they say, no matter how offensive.  But I phrase my opposition in terms of
the first amendment and freedom of speech.  It has nothing to do with Political
Correctness or lack thereof.  The current movement to label ideas or programs
as P.C. is a chilling reminder of McCarthyism, which also involved mindless
branding of people and ideas.  Consider the following, written by Ed Nilges:

>This does not mean, however, that I hew to any "politically correct" line
>that (for example) women's needs should always have precedence over the
>requirements of the field.

Dear Ed, I am a feminist, and almost all the female computer scientists
I know would consider themselves feminists.  Neither I, nor any
woman or man I know, would suggest that women's needs should always
have precedence over the requirements of the field.  In fact, every
woman I know would be very upset if anyone were to propose such a thing.
Do you know any women computer scientists?  If so, has any of them, or
anyone else you know, ever made such a suggestion?

The comment below was written by Michael Tobis:

>I have recently become aware of the extent to which the more ambitious
>(generally female baby-boomer academic) proponents of "deconstruction"
>intend to carry their philosophy. I was, in conversation with one such,
>discussing the (well-known to RISKS readers) propensity of the press to
>garble matters with a scientific content.

>The female baby boomer academic in question responded that this was indeed the
>case, and that "you scientists are so attached to your orthodoxies". Yes, the
>law of entropy, folks, is not an enigma, not a strange but inevitable feature
>of the fabric of the universe, nor an excellent approximation to reality whose
>limits have yet to be discovered. It is a dogma, if the deconstructionists are
>to be believed. What is more (here in the interests of preserving our
>friendship the conversation had to be dropped) it is no more or less true than
>"any other myth".

>My guess is that had the conversation continued, the second law would be
>denounced as sexist, since it had been promulgated almost exclusively by
>wealthy or at least bourgeois white males.

Michael, I realize that you had not intended to offend anyone, but I was made
very uncomfortable by your remark.  It might help to understand my discomfort
if you substitute the word `Jew' for `female baby boomer'.  That doesn't sound
ok, does it?  It also doesn't sound ok to `guess' what the woman would have
said, or to imply that her comments are in any way a function of her being
female, or that proponents of `deconstruction' tend to be female.  (I've never
heard that word mentioned by any of my friends, male or female, and I expect I
know more women than you do).

I am a theoretician, and I would like to see more, not less, rigor in our
field.  I also want to see more women and blacks in our field.  I am convinced
that we can introduce more rigor AND develop teaching approaches that do not
alienate women or minorities.


women and programming

Alex Martelli <>
14 Jun 91 22:22:26 MDT (Fri)
I am rather astonished at the `women/programming/logic' thread.  I believe a
*MAJORITY* of graduates in mathematics in Italy are women!  The firm I work
for, a software house specializing in non-electronic engineering CAD
applications, has roughly a 50-50 split in the software production division
personnel between men and women.  This is despite the fact that a VERY large
majority of mechanical and civil engineering graduates in Itali are men, and of
course we need staff with such degrees for expertise in the application
domains; this is balanced by our need for advanced mathematical techniques, for
such applications as solid modeling, and computational geometry in general -
for this, we mostly look for mathematicians, and most mathematicians (around
here) are women!

I have definitely seen discrimination against women in the computer area - I
regret, for example, the fact that a huge majority of computing *enthusiasts*
in Bologna are men - but here I'm talking about the kind of guys who spend
nights and weekends hacking on PCs, chat on Fidonet, and meet at night in clubs
and osterias to spend even more time on their favourite subject... most of them
wouldn't know formal techniques from baked zucchini!  So, whatever is
discouraging women from joining in such pursuits, it most surely is not any
emphasis whatever on formal logic.

The general man/woman stereotype around here is probably that men are supposed
to be more apt at "practical" matters (thus tend to go for degrees in
engineering more often than maths), while women are supposed to be more
"theoretical" (thus, the reverse).  I deeply mistrust any such stereotype, and
I find it just wonderfully laughable to learn that the US stereotype is
supposed to be JUST THE REVERSE!  Tacke no wooden nickels from bigots of either

Criteria and Science

Christopher Maeda <cmaeda@EXXON-VALDEZ.FT.CS.CMU.EDU>
Fri, 14 Jun 91 01:37:49 EDT
In all the cross talk on Formalism, Experimentation, etc. I think we have lost
track of the heart of the matter.  Michael Tobis said it best, at least in the
last few issues of Risks:

    In a nutshell, the problem is not the extent to which formal automata
    theory, software engineering, verification, etc. should be presented
    in an undergraduate program. The problem is that the issue is being
    attacked _on the grounds_ of its social/political appropriateness,
    rather than its utility.

Let us remember that Computer Science aspires to be a Science.  As such, a
thing's utility (for "doing" Science) is the only criterion that we, as
Scientists, can use to judge a thing's value.  The risks of doing otherwise in
a society so dependent on the fruits of science are immense.  I don't want to
be drawn into the vortex of who's way of thinking is better and whether there
is any correlation with gender.  Suffice to say that there are undoubtedly many
ways of thinking but all are not necessarily useful for doing Science.  Note
that what is useful for Science often has no relation to what is useful for the
rest of society.

It is unfortunate that women are underrepresented in Computer Science but it is
hard to propose solutions (at least for me, personally) when you are unsure of
the causes.  These are also the types of problems that I was trying to avoid
when I went into Computer Science in the first place :-).

Finally, the deconstructors of science seem to have gotten most of their ideas
from Kuhn's _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ but with a political
slant.  I don't see how people get surprised when they hear that scientists
don't really know or search for Truth.  That's what philosophers do.

Re: Formalism vs. Experimentation (RISKS-11.89 et passim)

Pete Mellor <>
Mon, 17 Jun 91 15:11:08 PDT
To avoid the argument becoming too one-sided (i.e., one side of the
Atlantic! :-), I thought I'd chip in with my three-ha'p'orth:-

That women *are* discouraged from analytical subjects such as Maths and Physics
is undeniable. The following anecdote from my schooldays illustrates this

At my co-ed grammar school (high school for "academic" kids who managed to pass
the dreaded 11-plus exam), it was decided by the powers that be that it was not
possible to teach both Biology and Physics to O-level (exam at around age 16).
At the end of the second year, we were gathered together in front of the
headmaster, who informed us that we had to choose between the two options. In
view of the natural distribution of abilities, we were informed, it had been
decided that all girls would take Biology, and all boys would take Physics,
from the third year on. Anyone who objected had to produce a letter from their
parents within three days.

Result: two girls, one a very bright mathematician, the other her best friend
to keep her company, did Physics; one boy, a keen entomolygist, did Biology.

This, of course, was in my schooldays, i.e., 100 years ago, and things must be
better now. So why does my daughter, in her first year at high school (girls
only, so I *hope* without the element of boy/girl comparison), never mention
Mathematics without an automatic expression of disgust?  When I point out that
Maths is a fascinating and creative subject, I get a reaction of the "Oh, yeah?
Who does the old fossil think he's kidding?"  type.

The problem seems to lie with the subculture of that strange alien tribe
"teenage girls", and from her conversation, I gather that social acceptability
depends upon having Jason Donovan occupying both right and left hemispheres of
the cerebral cortex. Her greatest ambition at the moment is to be a

*My* problem is to guide her into a career where she will earn enough to
support me in my retirement. Given the state of funding of British
universities, this will have to be a career which shows a quick return, so
perhaps I had better steer her towards photographic, rather than mathematical,
modelling. :-)

BTW, it wasn't much fun being a boy who was good at Maths, either.  The US
comedian Emo Philipson is doing well over here right now. On the radio last
Saturday morning he said "I wanted to be a nerd when I was at school, but I
didn't have the math requirement!".

I did and I was, Emo! :-)

Peter Mellor, Centre for Software Reliability, City University, Northampton
Sq.,London EC1V 0HB +44(0)71-253-4399 Ext. 4162/3/1 (JANET)

Re: The impact of formalism on Computer Science education

"Robert J. Reschly Jr." <reschly@BRL.MIL>
Thu, 13 Jun 91 22:48:51 EDT
I am sympathetic to the notion of equality when it is based on equivalent
ability.  No one seems to contest the notion that different segments of the
population have differing abilities -- I am emphatically *not* implying they
are necessarily innate; they may as easily be instilled -- which impact their
suitability for a particular pursuit.  To argue that varying suitability is not
relevant is sheer folly.

   It then comes down to making an often very difficult assessment as to
whether the difference is innate or instilled.  Instilled differences should be
rooted out and corrected, remedially and proactively, but it may be too late in
some cases to correct the damage already done.  Attempts to compensate for
uncorrectable differences can also be made, but in certain situations the added
risk may not be justifiable.

   Consider for a minute the fact that, even though I had (and still mostly
have) excellent reflexes and hand/eye coordination when I went into the
service, my 20/400 (uncorrected) vision ensured I would never set foot in the
cockpit of a military aircraft.  The fact that my acuity is 20/15 (corrected)
has no bearing as far as the military is concerned, and I doubt many people
inside or outside of the military would question that evaluation.

   I would argue that producing correct programs is still difficult
enough to warrant similar evaluations.  The trick lays in determining
the nature of any differences and fixing those which can be addressed.

U.S. Army Ballistic Research Lab. / Systems Eng. & Concepts Analysis Div.
Networking & Systems Dev. Team / Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD  21005-5066
(301) 278-6808        UUCP: ...!{{cmcl2,nlm-mcs,husc6}!adm,smoke}!reschly

Women, Computing, & Men

lance.norskog <>
13 Jun 91 21:27:32 GMT
Men talking about "the female mind" is sooooooooo enlightening.

My personal take is that men, much more than women, are fascinated by the act
of rearranging machinery.  Male programmers prefer software tools which allow
them to fiddle endlessly and achieve nothing, because all the really matters is
changing the machine.  This emphasis on spending vast amounts of time on
low-level programming with little end result is, in my experience, why most
women exposed to software engineering have little desire to do it for a living.

The biggest consequence of this is that our software engineering environments
are dominated by facilities for the pointless and endless rearrangement of
bits.  After 15 years of watching my development machines speed up 1000fold and
my development tools stand still, I have decided that this fascination with
fiddling is the single most important factor in the glacially slow progress of
software engineering over the past 40 years.

The RISK is not letting women build the software that controls our safety,
it is letting men do it.

Lance Christopher Norskog

Read "The Psychology of Computer Programming" by Joseph Weizenbaum.
It's all explained there.

Re: The impact of formalism on Computer Science education

paj <>
14 Jun 1991 11:00:05-BST
I read with interest Hal Pomeranz's contribution to this debate in RISKS-11.87.
Hal fears (along with Karen Frankel, author of the CACM article which sparked
this debate) that the emphasis of a solitary `thinking' approach to computer
science rather than a hands-on teamwork approach will discourage women from
taking up computing as a profession.

I agree with Hal that the superiority of `abstract' over `hands-on' (to label
the two approaches rather inaccurately) has not been demonstrated.  However, if
such a thing is demonstrated, surely it should be taught regardless of whether
there are differences between the average abilities of men and women in dealing
with this approach.  The point of equal opportunities is to allow women (and
men of course, although that is not usually a problem) to fulfil their
potential, to the benefit of themselves and society.  If it should turn out
that an apptitude at the `abstract' approach is necessary to be a good
programmer and that women do not have this apptitude (which has not been
demonstrated to my satisfaction either) then we are driven to the conclusion
that in general men make better programmers than women and the lack of women in
computing is therefore a Good Thing.  Of course, the exceptional women who can
deal with the `abstract' approach should be encouraged to enter computing.

It seems to me that Frankel and Hal are being sexist themselves, in
asserting that there is an area of human endeavor in which men are
intrinsically better than women (abstract thought).  They then
compound this error with special pleading for the educational system
to use a non-optimal teaching method in order that this failing does
not show up in the statistics.  The end result of this would be a
lower standard of computer programming in the world.

political correctness - to PANIC or not to PANIC

Michael Tobis <>
Fri, 14 Jun 91 17:52:23 GMT
In response to Mr. Ditchfield's criticism, I must admit that it is true that I
haven't yet read the original CACM article, and that my belief that the word
"sexist" was used in this particular discussion is second-hand, through Mr.
Nilges. My excuse for not reading the article is that I was in some haste to
call the attention of the RISKS community to the existence of a significant
community of people who consider the importance of science to be purely
relative, culturally determined, and political.

It is entirely possible that I owe Ms. Bernstein, at the other end of a long
chain of citations, an apology. Nevertheless, the attack on issues of
remarkable intellectual purity on the basis of political correctness does
exist, and I am pleased to have called the attention of a fairly large
population to it. Although it is a small proportion of the world's population
that takes political correctness to these extremes, it is an extremely
important one, as many undergraduates' first exposure to intellectual pursuits
these days (certainly in North America, perhaps elsewhere) is a vigourous
condemnation of rationality, the principles of evidence and discourse, and
ultimately intellectual honesty.   [...]

Michael Tobis

Re: Political correctness (Nilges, RISKS-11.86)

Richard A. O'Keefe <>
15 Jun 91 08:22:12 GMT
> Bernstein, according to Frankel, feels that Dijkstra is being sexist! ...

Several people have responded to this, but none of them seems to have made the
point that the alleged conflict between "solitary abstract thinking" and
"teamwork" is totally bogus.

One of the clearest thinkers I've read, Popper, stresses the need for critical
*discussion*. Good software construction requires tossing ideas around, deep
thinking about the ideas, and critical examination of those ideas.  It is worth
noting that many of Dijkstra's articles refer to problems which came up in
group discussions, and to solutions which have undergone repeated criticism and
consequent improvement.  Let me stress that: what Dijkstra himself does, and
what his students do, and what he and they have taught by example as well as
precept is not
                  "solitary abstract thinking"
but "logical reasoning as an important component of a rational-critical
discipline".  Dijkstra has written joint books/papers with Feijen, Scholten,
var Gasteren (just to name co-authorships I can remember off the top of my
head); he is clearly an exponent of COLLABORATIVE abstract thinking.

Nor are abstract thinking and experimentation incompatible.  I haven't much
experience teaching Computer Science yet, but what I have noticed is that good
students seem to do _both_ and poor students seem to do _neither_.
Experimentation gives you something to think abstractly _about_, while abstract
thinking is required to design informative experiments.  (Something like "what
shall I try next?  Hmm, I haven't tried throwing the sword at the troll.  Maybe
that'll get me across the bridge." requires abstract thinking about what you
have already tried.)

As for political correctness, the claim that women aren't good at thinking
logically smells to me like the old stereotypes dressed up in new clothes.
I've met too many good women statisticians and programmers to believe it.  From
reading many articles by British women scientists, I have a strong suspicion
that equal pay and equal respect are a better answer to the question "how to
get more women doing X" than pandering to imaginary weaknesses.

Finally, if I may quote Dijkstra himself:

    "Too often, we see a failure to distinguish sufficiently clearly
    between the intrinsic problems of computer science and the
    difficulties resulting from the shortcomings of our various
    educational systems."

Formalism and Experimentation

Fri, 14 Jun 91 09:25 EDT
>  Why do our schools teach programming as an INDIVIDUAL activity? ...

Why, indeed!  Because we put our schools in a double bind; we ask that they
both teach and grant credentials.  As a consequence, the issue is not what work
gets done, nor even what was learned.  Instead it is who did the work.  "Who
gets the credit," as an issue, is so deeply ingrained in the American academic
system as to be incapacitating.

Most recent graduates of our system do not want to work on teams.  Indeed, they
will refuse to do so.  They want to go off in a corner and write code by
themselves.  (My experience was that it often took years to incorporate one so
trained into an organization where they could be productive.)  Teamwork has
been stigmatized by our educational system; instead of encouraging and
exploiting it, they call it "cheating."

Learning should be for our children the same kind of joyful experience that it
is for us, the elite survivors of this cruel hoax.  We have made it into a
contest with few winners and lots of losers.  No wonder our dropout rate is so

We have the recent sorry spectacle of one our most prestigious institutions
assigning work that could only be accomplished in teams, should only be
attempted in teams, and then getting upset when the students discovered the
trick.  Unfortunately for us and for the students, the situation was treated
not as a discovery, but as ethical and moral terpitude.  Shame!  I hope that
the students involved in this sorry mess understand what was done to them.

If our children are to have a place in the world, they must learn to value, not
despise, teamwork.  If they are to do so, we must separate the teaching and
credential granting functions in our educational system.  Unfortunately, some
of our schools are so poor at teaching, that without the credentials to grant,
they will have to close their doors.

William Hugh Murray, 21 Locust Avenue, Suite 2D, New Canaan, Connecticut 06840
203 966 4769, WHMurray at DOCKMASTER.NCSC.MIL

Rerebuttal on computer education

Fri, 14 Jun 1991 08:00:49 PDT
Paula Ferguson, in 11.90:

First of all, computer science isn't a science like chemistry, it is an
engineering discipline.  There are no "laws" of computer science.

OK...  Let me ask you: What is one of the reasons why everyone feels that C is
the darling of programming languages? Why are we not programming in BASIC, for
example? Simple: The higher level of logical structure used by C gives you a
more powerful tool.

Granted: There are no 'laws' per se', when it comes to computer science, other
than the ones we create, since computers are  more about thought than about
physical reality.  But I would point out that it is their logical ability that
makes them useful to us. Logic is  the one basic atribute that we can pin on
the computer; it only thinks in choices of ones and zeros.

I'm by no means suggesting that we leave creativity behind;  Indeed, it's
needed to program well.... but creativity needs a base of practical knowledge
from which to operate.  A musician must learn to play their chosen instrument,
and have the tech ability down pat before the level of creativity can become
apparent. In any field of endevor, that base must be established first. In
computers, that base is logic, and the ability to think logically.

You say:
 Educational techniques have changed very little
in the past century while the world has changed considerably.  The
educational crisis is the result of this disparity.  Kids don't feel like
their teachers are teaching them anything worth learning, so they don't
learn.  Until education is made relevant to kids' lives, the crisis
won't go away.

I would suggest to you that the failure here lies not in making the material
relevant to the student, by changing that material to fit the student's
preferrence.. it already /is/ relevant. The failure lies, for the most part, in
the teacher's inability to / convince the student  / that the material is
 (The question of it's being purely  the teacher's fault goes outside the realm
of this discussion, but for my part I don't think it is.) I would further
suggest that this is the major failing in the area of female students and
computing.  IE: if female students are told from the womb that mechanical and
logical studies are not relevant (You're a girl, you don't have to learn
that...) they'll oblige... and in the long term have a larger barrier to

This is true of anyone, not just those outside the established mainstream.
As Nancy Levison points out, (forgive me if I've  mis-spelled your name, Nancy)
the idea that minority groups can't make it through the existing system without
some kind of slanting towards them, is insulting, demeaning, and is the root
cause, not the solution, to the ever widening gap between mainstream and
so-called minority students. (Since  females make up 51% of our population I
question calling women a minority...)

(Insert your favorite downtrodden here) will continue to under-perform as long
as that's what's expected of them. I ,for one ,value their 'style of thinking,
and the contribution they can make' as you put it, but suggest that the basics
/must/ be instilled before these can be used to their best advantage.

To tie this back to the original angle: The RISK here is the loss of many good
programmers if we don't take this path.

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