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Attracting More Women (and Men) to CS

Science and technology fields used to be dominated by men, but by 2005 about 51% of undergraduate degrees in science and engineering were earned by women, up from about 39% in 1985. (nytimes) However, computer science is behind in the numbers of women undergraduate majors, and if anything it is getting worse, in 2001 28% of undergrad degrees in Computer Science went to women, by 2005 that percentage had already dropped down to 22%. What is interesting about the fact that that women are lagging behind in computer science today is that is hasn’t always been that way. The turning point seems to have come in the early 1980’s, when computer science became a more popular subject field. There were many more interested students, and many job opportunities for faculty outside of academia, the combination led to a lot more demand for computer science instruction than supply of it. As an attempt to weed out students, comp sci departments imposed GPA requirements, and put a heavier focus on programming, which may or may not have scared off “weaker” students, but it did definitely scare off women.

One probable explanation for this is that women are probably already feeling out of place in computer science in the first place. Jan Cuny told the New York Times for an article about the lack of women in Computer Science that “The nerd factor is huge” referencing the cultural image American’s have of computer scientists as geeky young men who are socially awkward, and sit in front of computers in cubicles all day long. Since women in computer science are already in a social situation where they are the “other”, they are more likely to be intimidated into leaving for fields that are more socially accepting of them. Another factor might be that apart from societal assumptions about computer scientists, computers might be considered a masculine technology in general to some people. In Cleo’s writing she argues that computers could be broken down into genders, we would probably consider the utilitarian PC’s to be male, and the fun, more aesthetically pleasing Macs as women. When most people think about computer science they see the same features that Cleo described in the PC’s as being male “technical, less user-friendly (apparently), comparatively less attractive, better at making spreadsheets, and consequently most work-related activities, and has more serious gaming abilities”, people think of code, and long hours in computer labs late at night, and competition, and Intro to Computer Science courses reflect these “male” traits for the most part. This doesn’t just shape the kind of people that end up being computer scientists, but it also shapes the kind of work that those computer scientists will do. It seems likely that computer science majors who spend most of their educations learning about the technical details will be less likely to engage in the kind of interdisciplinary work that other students with more well-rounded educational backgrounds would be used to.

Since the effect of the masculinity of computer science and computer scientists has driven women away, many computer science departments are changing the ways that they teach intro computer science to try and appeal to more people, specifically, to try and attract women. Places like Bryn Mawr are going to great lengths to change the style of some, or all of their intro classes from the “technical” details that men are more interested in, to more inclusive “real-life” approaches. For example, Bryn Mawr’s intro classes include robots to make learning computer science more interactive. The “media” style intro course at Georgia Tech has better grades and retention than the other intro courses, and also has a greater proportion of women. It is unclear right now what the effects of these classes will have on computer science as a whole, but its seems plausible that students who are taught in classes where real life connections, and interdisciplinary subjects are used, then they are more likely to go on to do that kind of work. It is also likely that the inclusion of women will lead to new kinds of ideas, and will lead to more computer science work that addresses the needs of women. Fran Allen, the first female winner of the Turing award, says that she believes that it is important to have women in computer science because diversity in group projects brings better results.

One interesting effect of including more women in computer science is that it might make some men more comfortable too. There was a survey done by the Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore CS departments to gauge student comfort and general satisfaction with CS courses at both schools. What they found was that aggressive students in the classroom are seen as a problem, and that those students tended to be male. One other interesting thing this survey found is that men were more comfortable than women in CS classes at both Bryn Mawr and Swathmore, but everyone was more comfortable in classes at Bryn Mawr, where there are a greater proportion of women in the classroom. Does having more men in the classroom really mean more “aggressive” behavior, or do students just associate more men with more aggression because of societal expectations/media? Either way, it seems as though some men are more comfortable in CS classrooms when there are more women present, and if encouraging more women to be computer scientists also encourages more men, then that will probably be the benefit of the CS field as a whole.

One Response
  1. March 23, 2009

    I’m actually curious about your relationship to CS and whether the information you’ve read and heard jibes with your own experience. Did you consider CS? Why or why not? Does what people have said about what drives women away from CS make sense to you? It might also be interesting to apply some of the theoretical framework we looked at early in the class to critique approaches for attracting women to CS. Grint and Gill, if I recall, mentioned that programs to attract more women don’t tend to try to change the field itself, but tend to provide additional support and mentoring for women. Is the Bryn Mawr program different and does it strike you as successful? I suppose you could interview current CS students to find out. Does the structure of the program attract more people?

    I’m also wondering what other science fields, if any, have similarly low numbers and if there are similarities between those programs and CS. I’m curious to know if the masculinity or nerd factor plays a role in keeping women out of those fields as well. Also, it might be interesting to address the argument many raise, which is that women just aren’t naturally interested in these fields.

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