Women in Computer Science

The debate over the shortage of Computer Science graduates has brought the issue of women in Computer Science back into focus again. Of course for those people who look into their high school COMPUTER SCIENCE classrooms and see nothing but male faces I doubt it has ever moved far from thought.

The Boston Globe had an article about the issue this past Sunday. Unlike a lot of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs Computer Science programs are seeing drops in female enrollment.  Personally I think that is because most STEM programs are all about the S&M and not much about Technology and Engineering but that is just part of a larger issue.

Jane, a professor of Computer Science, points out recently that the issue is a hard one to fix. Some people are part of the problem and some are part of the solution.

When thinking about diversity within the techie fields, I tend to put technical people into one of two categories: part of the solution or part of the problem. Bill Gates? Part of the problem (in the sense that the models of computing success we hold up are overwhelmingly white, male, and "socially challenged"; not in the "Microsoft is bad and evil!" sense). Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher? Part of the solution ("we saw a problem with gender diversity at Carnegie Mellon and we worked really hard to fix it. Here's what worked for us.").

Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher come up in just about any discussion of this issue BTW. Their book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing is the book for people who are interested in this issue to read. I confess that I haven’t read it (shame on me) but I was one of the teachers fortunate enough to take part in the 6APT program at Carnegie Mellon that Jane and Allan organized and presented over three summers and six sessions a few years ago. They brought a lot of what they had learned at CMU into that program and some of what they learned in 6APT made it into the book. Their program was a wonderful education in how to involve (or at least scare fewer young women away from) Computer Science. I didn’t lose many girls after that and I saw a number of my female students take Computer Science in college. But it wasn’t as much help at getting girls into class as I’d hoped. The experience convinced me that the problems were as much if not more outside the classroom.

I talk to high school teachers about this all the time. Every teacher I talk to wants to teach Computer Science to more female students. (And more students in general.) Brian Scarbeau talks about his attempts to bring more female students into his classes at his blog. Brian is not so atypical as you might think in wanting to actively recruit more girls into his classroom. Computer Science is a great field. There are tremendous opportunities in it. But the deck seems stacked against getting women into the field.

Every teacher I know works hard to create a welcoming environment for female students. But they run into societal issues like the male geek stereotype that scares some girls away. Even worse though the run into guidance councilors who encourage girls to avoid Computer Science completely. If a girl insists on taking a “computer course” they all to often get pushed into a multi media or computer graphics course. Now there is nothing wrong with those courses but a lot of girls would really do well in a programming course – something that leads to real Computer Science. Why do they do that? I’m not sure but I think it has something to do with tailoring transcripts for college. Colleges are not asking students to have Computer Science to attend college. And yes, I think they should.

I believe that taking Computer Science helps a student succeed in college by building their problem solving and thinking skills. Succeeding in college is more important than just getting into college in my opinion.

But coming back to attracting women into the field, Zuska has a strongly worded blog post on the issue. Zuska has a real problem with solutions that place the blame on women for their poor numbers in Computer Science. She has a  point of course.

The proposed solutions all revolve around doing something to or for girls/women in order to bring them into CS.  This focus, intentionally or not, locates the problem within women.  Women need their interest raised, women need their confidence increased, women need their sense of belonging improved.  It seems to me that we ought to be phrasing the issue this way:  CS needs to improve its appeal to women, CS needs to stop behaviors and practices that undermine women's confidence, CS needs to work at developing a more inclusive environment.

I agree with a lot of this. But not completely. I don’t think that people in Computer Science do much to undermine women’s confidence. To the contrary I think that most teachers work hard to promote self-confidence in all their students. There are clearly issues in society that undermine female self-confidence but I don’t believe that Computer Science or Computer Science education is more than a pale reflection of that. The computer field is not harder on women than most other fields and it is better than many. That doesn’t mean that more can’t or shouldn’t be done though. But women are going to have to be a bit more help here. Most men just don’t know what they are doing wrong without someone telling them. Men make a convenient scapegoat but I don’t think that is fair.

And it is wonderful to say that Computer Science needs to improve its appeal to women but tell me how. I know that the appeal needs improvement but I find Computer Science so appealing as it is that it is hard to see how it could be more appealing. So please don’t state the obvious. Tell us what to do to make Computer Science more appealing. Give me some great projects to assign that female students will like- be specific.

I think the culture of business in Computer Science is changing by the way. As the current generation of Computer Science professionals is maturing (i.e. growing up and having kids) there is a greater sensitivity to family friendly work environments. it is not about all night work parties and eating nothing but junk food anymore. Companies in hi-tech like Hewlett-Packard and IBM make the Top 10 list of companies for working women from Working Woman magazine. So does Microsoft! Things are changing but the word is not getting out. How do we get the work out?

What are the solutions? I think we need to do a couple of things. One is that we need to start earlier. Middle school is almost late. But programs like FIRST Lego League are giving younger girls some introduction to engineering and Computer Science. We need some programming courses at this level as well. That is something I expect to work on this year.

Second we need women in Computer Science to be more visible to young women and to spread the message that there is a good life for a woman in the field.

Thirdly we need to educate school administrators and guidance councilors that Computer Science is for everyone and that includes girls. We need to communicate the values of a Computer Science education and encourage girls who know how to solve problems (or want to know how to solve problems) to take more computer courses.

And of course once a girl gets into a computer course we need to avoid scaring them away.


[Edit: If you are reading this using RSS and are not seeing the comments you may want to look at them. Some interesting discussion going on.]

Comments (6)

  1. ___ says:

    Why we must bring more women in CS industry?

    If we are lowering barriers for women we are lowering overall efficiency.

    Do you agree that the fact that women DO NOT WANT TO WORK IN IT means that their work (statistically) due to some psuchological/physiological/other reasons is worse? Do we really want to change their mind? What is the reason?

  2. I think we need more women in CS for two reasons. One is that we have a shortage of people that is going to get worse unless we do something. If the same number of women were in the field as men there would not be a shortage. The second, and perhaps more important, reason is that women bring a different approach to things. We need some new and different ways to look at CS problems. I look at the way business travel has changed in good ways since more women started traveling and think that women bring new ideas to a lot of things.

    No one is suggesting lowering barriers that involve lowering efficiency. What people want to do it remove barriers that have nothing to do with quality or that are improper barriers for everyone.

    I think that often women have different ways of looking at things and different priorities than men. Of course that is a broad brush sort of statement and does not apply to all. But different does not always mean better or worse. I think that there are very good reasons why women can be and often are better at CS than men. In the early days of the industry most programmers were women for example. Men were just in the hardware. The women I have known in CS are almost all better than average when compared to men at what they do. I think that adding more women will improve the state of the art and at the same time add to the quality of the work place. There is no down side to adding more women. There is a risk of losing greatly if we don’t.

  3. ___ says:

    My experience in working with women in IT shows, that they often tend to manage people with obvious lack of any sufficient skills (especially technical). Of course, the exceptions DO exist, but very rarely.

    There is very complex situation: average CS skills of women are obviously lower than men’s, but women often create comfort atmosphere in group in case they don’t try to be "man in skirt" . If they "try" to be man, there is no "difference" between men and women and such a women lack this "comfort atmosphere".

  4. I’ve been working in IT for a little over 30 years and my experience with women managers has all been very positive. So I don’t believe that the "exceptions" are as rare as you have found. The average woman programmer I have worked with during the years has been as good or better than the average male programmer I have worked with. I think that women are naturally just better at a lot of programming tasks because they tend to plan more and work to those plans. My wife who was an outstanding programmer when she did that for a living always managed to create bug free code in less time than her male co-workers for example. I think that too many male programmers just "throw code together" until it sort of works. They produce results by working hard (lots of hours) rather than by working smart.

    As for the population as a whole I do not think that there is much difference between the level of CS skills between men and women. I think the areas of skill may be different with boys learning games and girls learning communication tools.

  5. One last comment. I notice that you are not signing your name or leaving a web link. Why is that?

  6. Pat Phillips says:

    Sexist remarks based on stereotypes are exactly the reasons that so many women and girls stay away from, or leave computer science and high tech careers. The good ‘ole boy network and boy’s club mentality is alive and well! The sad thing about this is that our society, and indeed the world, can not afford to have only half of the population (less if you consider other unrepresented groups) excluded either overtly or culturally from any endeavor. Diversity insures rich complexity to every field and career. If you think technology will make greater and faster strides through a “closed club” approach you are sadly mistaken.

    As you read the list below ask yourself “Why?”

     The percentage of women receiving bachelor-level degrees in computer or information sciences has declined from a peak of 35.8 percent in 1984 to 26 percent today.

     Among the science and engineering workforce, computer science is the only area where women’s participation has declined since 1993.

     One study indicates girls in high schools make up only 5 – 7% of the students in the most challenging IT courses such as network design.

     In 2004 only 11% of Computer Science AB Advanced Placement test takers were girls. Computer Science is the ONLY AP subject to have lost ground in the number of girls participating. If you want proof of female abilities take a look at the numbers of girls in AP physics, calculus, biology and chemistry!

     According to the Coalition to Diversify Computing, the number in the advanced degree pipeline is not increasing by much, either. In fall 2004, 1.3% of enrolled PhD students were Hispanic, 1.8% African-American, and only 0.2% Native American.

    If these numbers aren’t scary enough check out “Will Fewer Computer Students Hurt U.S. IT Market?” by Robb Drew. Technology education is stagnating in the US while other nations are forging ahead. Microsoft Research figures highlight the fact that Russia graduates 180,000 people a year with the necessary skills to make it in IT. India came in next with 60,000, and then China with 50,000. No other country in the developing world, including the U.S., comes close.

    Wm. A. Wulf is president of the National Academy of Engineering sums it up. “…I believe that engineering is profoundly creative. Second, as in any creative profession, what comes out is a function of the life experiences of the people who do it. Finally, sans diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost – a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented……”

    How did we get to such a state?

    Cultural expectations perpetuated by families and schools are probably the greatest culprit in this blame game. The subtle discouragements for this and encouragements for that are so pervasive I doubt we recognize them when thrown in our faces.

    Amazing but true: I know a science teacher who thinks it is ok to tell ‘dumb blonde’ jokes because he also tells ‘dumb jock’ jokes.

    We are all, at every level and in every way, products of our culture. Change is difficult and requires work.

    Changing one’s attitude

    Recognize that programming is not the sum total of IT.

    Acknowledge that we need individuals skilled in IT in many fields.

    financial and money management – banks, investment and estate planning

    social services agencies – health, family, childcare

    transportation – from airlines to shipping

    communications – public relations, business, marketing

    telecommunication – Internet, telemarketing centers, technical support

    If you have not seen this book, I strongly suggest you get it and put it on your desk.

    American Women in Technology – An Encyclopedia by Linda Zierdt-Warshaw, Alan Winkler, & Leonard Bernstein It will break down a few long held stereotypes.

    There is little dispute that the first, and likely greatest, abstract/representational thinker was Ada Byron Lovelace. If you have a chance, watch this movie: To Dream Tomorrow – Ada Byron Lovelace.

    Obviously, I am passionate on this topic. Sorry for such a long reply but you got me going! For me the bottom line is fairness. It is only fair that every field, every endeavor be open and, most importantly, welcoming to every qualified individual. Being discouraged from participation for whatever reason is plan wrong.

    Perhaps the feeling that women developers aren’t as good as men (which I do not believe is true) is because many of the best are driven away to the other fields that recognize quality can wear pants, skirts, knickers or even tutus!

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