Saturday, February 6, 2010

Minimizing the Gender Gap in Computer Science

I'm female. And I like computers and technology. I'm a minority. This has led me to try to understand the gender gap in technology. In this post, I take a look at some recent studies in the field and look at my own experience to develop some ideas that might help minimize this gap.

First, I should ask the question: why do we even need women in technology? The field seems to be progressing fine without them, right? A good reason to have women more involved in technology is because groups with both women and men tend to work better together. According to this article in Forbes, papers that have both men and women authors have 42% more citations than papers with a single gender. It seems that women have a very positive effect on any collaborative work!

Next comes the question: why are girls avoiding the tech industry? One study suggests that the environment itself prevents them from taking an interest. A group of scientists recently performed a study on students' interest in computer science. Students were asked to sit in 2 very different rooms and asked to fill out a survey about their interest in computer science. Given a room decorated with very geeky paraphernalia, the girls were much less likely to be interested in computers than if they were in a room with gender-neutral decor.

Also, as a child, I remember my own experiences. I liked playing computer games as a kid, and I liked programming my TI-85 as a high school student. But I never took a computer class in high school. In fact, I never even considered computers as a potential career path. How could this happen? One obvious reason was that computer classes were never required in elementary school, middle school, or high school. Another major factor was peer pressure. I'm afraid to say this, but only the geekiest, most unpopular kids were taking the computer courses at my high school. Taking such a course would be akin to "social suicide".

So, what can be done to get more girls in the industry? First, we should address the fact that the environment might have an affect on students' perception of computer science. We should make an effort to minimize any male-oriented objects in the environment and make the classrooms as gender neutral as possible. One study suggests that we should eliminate all boys from the room, since single-sex classrooms increase the likelihood that girls will take interest in computer science.

Another suggestion I have is based on my own experience. I think we should require students to learn how to use computers starting from elementary school all the way through high school. By exposing all students to computers, these classes would not be reserved for the geekiest, most unpopular students. Plus, it would allow all students to explore computers as a potential career. We already impose requirements for biology, math, and English, why not computers too? Computer engineering is a highly viable career option (maybe more than English). And, even if computer science isn't a student's main interest, knowing how to use computers and technology is integral to almost every professional career and would be useful for everyone.

Finally, I think we need to reach out to girls on more areas than just schools. There are many other media that can help. I'm so excited to see that Barbie is reaching out to young girls! Let's not stop here, though! TV programs for young children can do the same by including more girls using computers and studying computer science. Teen magazines can include articles about programming and majoring in computer engineering. Movies can include more female computer scientists.

With all these ideas in mind, we can start making a difference! I'm going to start this semester. I'm helping plan the Summer Enrichment Program for high school girls interested in computer science. The program is held by my grad school, USF. It runs for a week in the summer and exposes girls to a wide range of topics in computer science. Last year, we taught them about computer architecture, python programming, and java programming. The program is such a great event. Last year, the girls showed marked increase in their interest in computer science, approximately 1.5 points on a scale of 5. I look forward to this year's program and hope to inspire the girls just as much!

If you are interested in minimizing the gender gap too, I urge you to get involved!

1 comment:

  1. Very inspiring post Kathryn! It will be interesting to see how the gender gap changes over the next 10-15 years as computers become more accessible to girls at an earlier age.