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.]