Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bringing Women to Computer Science

On April 17, Cornelia Dean published an article inr the New York Times about computer science programs' attempts to attract more women into the field (registration required).

“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.

One of the experts given significant space in the article suggested that the way to increase the percentage of women in CS is to de-geekify it.

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.[Jan] 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.”

According to the article, computer scientist Lenore Blum and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have addressed this issue by "moving emphasis away from programming proficiency." Not surprisingly, this is a controversial opinion.

n8han at Coderspiel has one of the more articulate rants about why deemphasizing programing is the wrong solution:

Expanding the non-programming ghettos of computer science and promoting them as a way to interest and accommodate girls is a spectacularly poor attack on the problem. It is throwing out the baby, the bathwater, the tub, and yourself too. It is idiotic. It is the most insulting thing to girls since the "math is hard" barbie. Girls could learn more computer science in home economics than in a “wonders of computing” class because there at least they might get to program a new stitch into an the electronic sewing machine.

If anyone is really interested in getting more girls (and boys) into computer science, the answer is to teach it earlier in school. It doesn’t have to be “Java programming,” but it does need to be programming. Start them off in the interpreter of a scripting language like Python and show the kids how easy it is to create something. Because that is what programming is all about: making things. Move on to pygame and animate some sprites. If students are to be taught Java, start with the hands-on, graphical Processing environment and make interactive art for art class.
Shame on these no-talent hacks for telling girls that the only kind of computer scientists they can be are non-programming airbags—the world’s first programmer managed just fine as a woman.

tollingbell thinks that CS departments should emphasize mathematics:
Departments really need to emphasize the mathematical side of CS, and appeal to the relatively large number of bright female (and male) mathematicians. Overwhelmingly, understanding calculus, diff. eq., discrete math and stats is more important than remembering how to administer a UNIX server or use UML (which are both nice but are honestly best learned outside the classroom). Classical theory of computation and systems classes are sufficiently foreign to mathematicians (and frequently useless in practical computing); they should be pared down. Vocational courses in java and web development, and Info. Sys., now the bread and butter of CS departments, should become electives. Core CS should consist of structures and algorithms, hardware, OS, systems/networks, AI and graphics, and should require a solid grounding in math and physics.
Shelly Powers at Burning Bird liked the article, and points to an earlier post where she discusses at length how she feels CS education is broken. She takes the opposite viewpoint to tollingbell:
Computer Science is still too heavily associated with either the math or the engineering departments, neither of which reflects how computers are used today. Computers are used in business and in social sciences, in psychology, medicine, history, and on and on. We associate computer science with calculus, when something like the library sciences would provide more useful integration, with its better understanding of the gathering and categorizing of data.
I look at the computer science programs now in most schools and frankly, with today's technology, they're dull as dishwater. There's no connection with what's happening in the world. There's nothing more than a desperate attempt to hold on to what's familiar. Unfortunately, though, the side effect is that the programs attract a certain type of person, and frankly, discourage others who could and would add much to the field.
Michelle at I Am a Tree notes that the article does go on to point to positive solutions other than "reducing the nerd factor."

Finally, Urban Farm Girl relates her own experiences in "Why I Choose Computer Science".
So I guess in summary, for me it had nothing to do with the curriculum at the university and it had nothing to do with encouragement from advisers and professors (believe me, I had none little of that). It had everything to do with experiences when I was young and parents that believed in me.
Of course the New York Times isn't a blog, but they do allow comments. Catherine Price at has also asked for comments on the article. And last, but not least, there is the inevitable SlashDot thread, if you are willing to wade through it - or check out She's Such a Geek's comments on the comments (aptly titled "I guarantee you'll see men in computer fields stating as fact that women women don't really want to be in computer science").

My own feeling is that part of the problem is that hard core computer geek culture tends towards the misogynistic. Looking in from the outside, I see technology conferences full of booth babes, games with big-boobed avatars and nude women "easter eggs," and a kind of (nerdy) fraternity-house atmosphere that shouts "honey, you don't belong here." But maybe that's just me.

ETA a couple more:

Tim O'Reilly points to the generally poor teaching of math and science in the U.S. and

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.)

O'Reilly also points to Kathy Sierra's Head First books as a new way of approaching CS education.

Meanwhile, Sean Voisen argues that part of the problem is that practical computer science is not taught at the college level.

Some of the best software developers I know did not study computer science in college. They were once graphic designers or philosophy majors or cognitive science students. They’re self-taught programmers who spent evenings tinkering on their computers with programming books splayed out over their desks. As for me, other than my learned ability to logically solve problems and troubleshoot, I would estimate that I have used only about 10% of what I learned in computer science in the 4 years since I’ve graduated. Almost all of the knowledge that I actually use — from design patterns to syntax — I taught myself outside of schooling.

He concludes:

As for the lack of women in computer science, I’m not prepared to comment on why there are so few. [snip] But I do know this: We need them. And in the world of software design and engineering for consumers and business, we need a lot more of them. A lot. Women tend to be more naturally intuitive and empathetic than men, which means they provide alternative insights, and they’re naturally more well-suited to designing complex things such that they seem simple. The world is awash in unusable, overly-complex and frustrating software. And if we had more women making the software, that almost certainly would not be the case.
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