University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Intrinsic Interest in IT

Information technology employees gather around a table to collaborate
January 24, 2023  |  By Mitchell Simpson, Zachary Steeleman

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The technology industry appears to have a diversity problem. While there may be more women than ever in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers, they are still underrepresented in most career fields.  
 
The problem even exists in the pipeline of workers, too. Almost twice as many women enroll in postsecondary education as men do, and women graduate from college at higher rates than their male peers. Even a majority of STEM students are women, although largely concentrated in degrees related to health professions. But despite having a clear edge on enrollment and graduation numbers, women are still underrepresented in math, engineering, and the physical sciences. 
 
The gender disparity in technology fields is an issue we need to address. Technology careers confer high salaries, and STEM workers solve problems that demand a creativity that we cannot rightly expect to access if half the population doesn’t consider the field an option for work. Accordingly, information systems researchers have put a lot of thought into the intersection of gender, diversity more generally, and technology interest. 
 
But we may be asking the wrong questions about diversity in STEM fields. 

Zachary Steelman, associate professor of information systems at the University of Arkansas, says that there has been inadequate attention placed on individual differences that better explain the disparity in technology education and career paths. In their recent article, “What Makes One Intrinsically Interested in IT?,”  Steelman,  Ronnie Jia and Heather H. Jia argue for an empathizing-systemizing model of technology interest that roots our career interests in the biological structures of our brains. 
 
The researchers adopted the empathizing-systemizing model from autism spectrum research, and when they applied it to technology interest (generally, not skill), gender differences became insignificant. More importantly, their research suggests this model can be applied and generalized across cultures. Steelman, Jia, and Jia say that using this measure of autism spectrum tendencies better explains the gender disparity in STEM fields without further reinforcing gender stereotypes. 

Systemizing and Technology Interest 

Individuals show clear preferences for habits of thought, which are largely divided between empathizing and systemizing tendencies. Empathizing helps us predict our social world, whereas the systemizing dimension analyzes and builds rule-based systems. Neither is better or worse. Rather, they both help us solve different problems. 
 
The empathizing-systemizing model suggests that a great deal of our own interests may indeed be out of our own hands, even before culture swoops in to muddy our agency too. People with autism are hyper-systemizing. There also appears to be a genetic link between systemizing and autism. Moreover, far more males are diagnosed with autism than females are. 
 
Research has shown that students in STEM fields display more of a preference to systemize than their peers in the humanities and social sciences, and those with the highest autistic tendencies are often drawn to systemizing fields. Researchers have recognized this relationship across cultures in places such as the UK, the Netherlands, and Japan. Computers themselves are generally an appealing interest for systemizers because they are governed by predictable, Boolean rules. 
 
Okay, but why does this matter? The researchers can measure an autism quotient (AQ), which allows them to infer the degree to which someone prefers systemizing or empathizing modes of thought. Steelman, Jia, and Jia used AQ because it is largely applicable to the general population—it reveals a continuum between diagnosed autism and subclinical cases.  
 
But the researchers are careful to point out that AQ is not a diagnostic tool, per se, instead, it functions as a screening tool and can help measure autistic tendencies in the general population. The researchers and companies with neurodiversity endeavors are less concerned with capturing clinical cases of autism so much as they are interested in a particular habit of mind, which comes with a particular outlook and set of skills. 
 
Steelman, Jia, and Jia had participants in both the United States and India respond to a questionnaire to measure their AQ, systemizing quotient (SQ), and determine their interest in technology fields. They found that higher AQs and SQs correlated with high levels of interest in technology. More interesting, the researchers found that once the empathizing-systemizing dimension is considered, gender became an insignificant factor for an individual’s interest in IT in both the American and Indian participant populations. That is, males and females with the same modes of thought tend to be interested in similar intellectual pursuits. 

Gender and Tech 

This doesn’t mean the gender disparity in STEM fields is natural. The researchers are quick to remind us that their study merely measures innate interest in technology, and there may be other contexts where gender is in fact the main driving mechanism. Rather, these findings suggest that trying to solve this problem by addressing social constructs alone (i.e., demasculinizing STEM) is not likely to produce the results we might hope for. Steelman, Jia, and Jia say that these findings remind us that it is important to consider other  forces that may be masquerading as gender differences. 
 
The researchers argue that it is best to begin at the individual level and consider what it is about an individual’s preferences that shape their interests. Exposure and representation, while good in their own right, won’t necessarily win over new students when women, who currently work in STEM fields, often describe themselves as more mathematical, logical, and less social than other woman. 
 
On a population level, women skew towards empathizing thought processes over systemizing, so the researchers urge educators and advisors to emphasize the human and social impact of STEM as much as we encourage systemizers by highlighting the formal logic of the fields. And women in fact already do outnumber men in STEM fields where its effects on human lives is much clearer, such as biomedical engineering. As a case in point, the researchers cite a computer programming course offered by the University of California Berkley. The university retitled the course “Beauty and the Joy of Programming” from its original “Introduction to Symbolic Programming,” and consequently, more women than men began to take the course. 
 
Likewise, the researchers say that counselors should consider using screening tests to identify systemizing students. In this way, they might be able to better match academic pursuits with students’ strengths and interests. 
 
We’ve been striving to solve the problems caused by lack of diversity in our communities and institutions for decades. Steelman and his coauthors suggest that it may be worth approaching those problems laterally to identify solutions we might not have intuitively thought of. 

 

Post Author/Researcher:

Mitchell SimpsonMitchell Simpson is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the Global Middle Ages and cross-cultural communication in the European Medieval and Early Modern Periods. When his nose isn't buried in a book (usually a Japanese textbook right now), he can be found hiking the Ozarks or at the gym improving his grappling. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their small menagerie, two cats, Hildi and Winnie, and a goofy dog, Birch, in Fayetteville.



Matt WallerZach Steelman is an assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems at the Walton College. He holds Ph.D. and M.I.S. degrees from the University of Arkansas, a B.B.A. in information systems from Northeastern State University and an A.A. from Carl Albert State College.