Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Closing the Gender Gap in Computer Science...

There is a fabulous article in the New York Times today profiling the gender gap in computer science.  Just to restate some of the statistics...
  • Even though women represent more than half the overall work force, they hold less than a quarter of computing and technical jobs.
  • Women earn just 12% of computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1984.
  • Roughly 74% of girls in middle school express an interest in engineering, science and math. But by the time they get to college, just 0.3% choose computer science as a major.
As an instructor of computer science myself, I can definitely attest the accuracy of these figures.  In my freshman-level Intro to Programming class, I would anecdotally say that it's common to have only 6 or 7 female students in every class of 35.  In the more advanced courses, that number dwindles to only 1 or 2.

Researchers have attributed this phenomenon to a variety of causes such as discouraging parents, inadequate resources for teachers, and a lack of exposure.  None of these seem especially convincing.  After all, aren't boys similarly affected by teachers not having adequate resources for their classrooms, and in this digital era aren't boys and girls pretty equally exposed to high-tech products and the Internet from an early age?

What groups like Girls Who Code are doing is very welcome.  They are strategically shifting towards teaching girls how to actually write code, and moving away from past attempts at teaching girls the skills needed to build start-ups, raise venture capital, and climb the management ranks at big companies.  Not that these are bad things, mind you.  They just haven't led to more women pursuing high-tech careers.

Girls Who Code should be lauded, but it's a shame that such groups are even needed in the first place.  Why does this gender gap even exist?  Socialization must be the biggest culprit.  It is certainly not inability, contrary to some archaic stereotypes.  In fact, most of the female programming students I have had regularly outperformed the overall class average.  And it isn't discrimination either.  My experience echoes that of the tech executives, recruiters, and financiers cited in the Times article:  The problem is that women simply aren't walking through the door.

The solution to the gender gap ultimately rests upon changing social norms.  That's a process that takes time, and I'll leave it up to the advocacy coalitions to determine the best tactics for realizing this objective.  I'll just add, from the relative insider perspective of a political-scientist-turned-computer-scientist, that nobody should be intimidated from pursuing a high-tech skillset.



At 2:45 PM, Anonymous BearDutch said...

What about the video gamming industry marketing more towards adolscent girls. Its probably safe to say most programmers were fascinated by video games at some point of there life. Its pretty obvious most video games appeal more towards the male genre(Sports, Shooting, Violent Adventure, etc). Im curious if there are any studies on genres of young children playing video games, my daughter use to play as many online video games as her brother, i.e. Club Penguin. However once she reached the age of 11 she stopped playing, the kiddie games got old. Also maybe with the millenium generation things will change; plenty of girls now play gaming apps such as "Candy Crush, Bike Race, Temple Run, etc". But these games aren't that intriguing and are probably more played out of boredom. I would love to hear your thoughts on the millenium generation predicted to be the "Greatest Generation".


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