“The Self-Selection Problem”
by Ana Kuang
"I have no idea what I'm doing. I feel so behind."
Last semester, I spent much of my Intro to Computer Science class trading comments like the one above with the girl sitting next to me. She, in turn, would confess, "I don't belong here. I don't know anything about coding." As the only two girls in our class, we assumed we were permanently behind our fourteen male classmates.
The real problem was that we weren't behind at all. Only one person in our class had any coding experience. Everyone else was just as clueless as we were. In fact, there were times when we were actually ahead. Driven by the fear that we were always behind, we aimed to complete our assignments in record time, and occasionally, we succeeded. Whenever this happened, we exchanged bewildered glances as our classmates continued to work around us. However, the opposite never happened. Everyone else appeared to be completely comfortable with his inexperience.
Perhaps we just happened to be the only two people in the class to have confidence issues, but I suspect the problem runs deeper than that. According to a report by Hewlett-Packard, "women apply for open jobs only if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed, whereas men respond to the posting if they feel they meet 60 percent of the requirements." Another study done by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger supports this conclusion—the two had invited a group of college students to participate in a science competition, and found that while 51 percent of women refused, only 29 percent of men turned the invitation down.
As these two reports indicate, women tend to doubt their abilities and consequently self-select when applying to skill-based positions. This became apparent when I tried to recruit other female students to take the computer science class next year. Among those who said no, the most common reason cited was not “I’m not interested in computer science,” but rather “I don’t know anything about computer science.”
This lack of confidence could partially explain why women compose such a small percentage in S.T.E.M. fields relative to men. Many girls are not encouraged to pursue the hard sciences, and as a result, when given the opportunity to enter the field, they believe they will not be successful even though their male peers may be just as inexperienced. The self-selection problem could also explain the lack of women in top-tier corporate positions.
Since the problem stems from cultural attitudes towards women, the only solution is to take risks yourself and to encourage the women around you to do the same. So sign up for that course that’s always interested you, even if you know nothing about the subject. Apply to that dream school or job. You can do it!