Women in Computer Science

In a recent NY Times article entitled Computer Science Takes Steps to Bring Women to the Fold, Cornelia Dean points out that the number of women in computer science has been on the decline since 1985:

Women received about 38 percent of the computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States in 1985, the peak year, but in 2003, the figure was only about 28 percent, according to the National Science Foundation.

At universities that also offer graduate degrees in computer science, only 17 percent of the field’s bachelor’s degrees in the 2003-4 academic year went to women, according to the Taulbee Survey, conducted annually by an organization for computer science research.

The article details efforts at a number of universities to draw more women to computer science, and analyzes the factors that keep women away:

“Women are the canaries in the coal mine,” Lenore Blum, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told an audience at Harvard University in March, in a talk on this “crisis” in computer science. Factors driving women away will eventually drive men away as well, she and others say….

The big problems, these and other experts say, are prevailing images of what computer science is and who can do it.

“The nerd factor is huge,” Dr. Cuny said. According to a 2005 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, an academic-industry collaborative formed to address the issue, when high school girls think of computer scientists they think of geeks, pocket protectors, isolated cubicles and a lifetime of staring into a screen writing computer code.

This image discourages members of both sexes, but the problem seems to be more prevalent among women. “They think of it as programming,” Dr. Cuny said. “They don’t think of it as revolutionizing the way we are going to do medicine or create synthetic molecules or study our impact on the climate of the earth.”

They’re right: computing is not about computers any more: it’s about a new approach to virtually everything. That means, perhaps, that the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough computer science students, but rather than computer science hasn’t been sufficiently integrated into the mainstream curriculum for all students! More exposure to the excitement and potential of computers in other fields would inevitably draw people from those fields to explore CS in more detail. (That being said, a huge number of the folks who read O’Reilly books have little or no formal CS training anyway — they are self-taught.)

(There’s another point, not made in the article, that might also dissuade women from CS careers, though. Given the frat-boy attitudes that have been highlighted as part of the discussion on civility following the Kathy Sierra imbroglio, I have to say that there’s something to this argument. If the attitudes I’ve seen reflected in my comments about civility on this blog are as common as they appear to be, computer science would appear to be as friendly to women workers as the local junkyard, with attack dogs outside and pinup posters on the walls. Now, those of us in the industry know that that isn’t so at all — there are far more caring and insightful nerds than there are those who are rude and socially inept. But as in so many areas, all it takes is a few bad apples to give a field a bad name.)

Returning to the point that pure programming may not appeal as much to women as the application of computers to other areas, the article continues:

The Advanced Placement high school course in computer science may be part of the problem, according to Dr. Cuny. “The AP computer course is a disaster,” she said. “It teaches Java programming, which is very appealing to a lot of people, but not to others. It doesn’t teach what you can do with computers.”

She and others think the course needs to be redesigned.

But Dr. Lazowska said the criticism was somewhat unfair, given that introductory college computer courses, which the AP course is designed to replace, typically emphasize programming as well.

At one time, said Barbara Grosz, a computer scientist and dean of sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, students entered college with little idea of what computer science involved, “so they would try it and find out how much fun and how interesting it was, women included.”

Now, though, she said in an e-mail message, “they get the wrong idea in high school and we never see them to correct the misperception.”

These comments echo my own feelings about the poor teaching of math and science in general. From the earliest grades, math is taught in the abstract, with little or no focus on what it’s really good for. Start building things, for example, and you realize how useful that geometry and trigonometry are.

There’s really a lesson here about pedagogy: if you start with what people want to do, they will go to great lengths to build the skills that will help them to get better at reaching their goals. But if you teach the skills in the abstract, even the most exciting field can become deadened.

Still, the basic point of the article, that we need more women in CS proper, is important. Women have insights, perspectives, and values that men lack (and the reverse.) Kathy Sierra is a great example, for the breakthrough work she’d much rather be known for than for the recent fracas. The Head First series of books, which she developed, illustrate a whole new approach to teaching CS topics. These books have become the #1 bestsellers in every category that they have been published in to date, indicating something about the power of Kathy’s insights. And I consider her Creating Passionate Users blog to be the most insightful source of understanding how to build great computer products.

It could be that Kathy’s insights are unrelated to her sex, but my guess is that the female perspective is part of what got Kathy to see the bigger picture of how computer science is about people and how they learn as well as about computers.