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So, what's wrong with being an introvert?

Ira Winkler asks whether social 'ineptitude' is such a bad thing

By Ira Winkler
August 8, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Let me start this week's column off by stating that security is very much a people issue. That said, I expect to offend many groups of people, as well as some of my editors, with this week's column.

Don Tennant's July 31 editorial, in which he sharply criticized the Carnegie Mellon University professor who said the computer profession deserves its reputation for attracting socially inept introverts, surprised me and drew a lot of outrage from readers, and a bumper crop of messages in our mailbag. What upset Tennant about that assertion? In my opinion, the reputation is largely earned. We might as well accept that and deal with it.

Randy Pausch, who made the comments, is a professor at one of the most prestigious computer science programs in the world. He regularly encounters hundreds of the best and brightest emerging computer professionals and has probably met tens of thousands throughout his career. If he believes that the stereotype for computer professionals is accurate, I'd say his opinion has merit.

It's not unusual for controversy to erupt when educators make generalizations, and sometimes the logic or experience behind such observations gets lost in the uproar. Take, for instance, former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who so famously remarked on possible reasons why there are more men than women working at elite levels in the sciences. The reasons he suggested included genetics, upbringing and family responsibilities. The ensuing firestorm ushered Summers out the door in Cambridge, Mass.

My educational background is in psychology, and a long line of studies in my field shows that men and women use different areas of their brains to make decisions. Likewise, they take different approaches to making decisions. There is nothing objectionable about these facts. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus was a bestseller and social icon because women (yes, primarily women) bought the book to understand how differently men and women approach relationships. Many women gave the book to their spouses or significant others in an effort to have them better understand their feelings and decision processes.

Difference isn't wrong; it simply exists -- and acknowledging and understanding differences is an important step to addressing problems. If you acknowledge that there is some factor that causes women to be less inclined to go into sciences, you can begin to address that issue, without implying that there's somehow something wrong with the difference. For example, if you determine that the way sciences are traditionally taught (for example, the mechanics are taught without the application) dissuades women from pursuing the sciences as a career, you can modify teaching methods to keep women in the sciences. Criticizing someone simply for floating a difficult hypothesis silences other people and discourages people from researching the possibility -- or developing methods for correcting complex problems.

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