Gender Gap in Computer Science Michael Scott Alexander University of British Columbia

Gender Gap The number of females electing to take computer science and computer science related courses in post-secondary has been declining since it peaked in the mid-1980s. In some post-


secondary institutions, the number of females taking computer science is critically low compared to the overall percentage of total females enrolled in post-secondary institutions across Canada and the United States. Several institutions are taking initiatives to identify causes of such a discrepancy between the number of males enrolled in computer science compared to the number of females. To fully comprehend these issues, one must look back at the history of computer science as it emerged as an academic field in colleges and universities across North America. The studies and research have listed some possible causes for the decline in female enrollment which will be looked at in some depth as well as to some possible strategies that can be implemented by educators to try and attract more females into realizing that computer science is a viable option for both males and females in post-secondary institutions. The challenge is to bear in mind that although the trend seems to be consistent across North America, each college and university is unique and the cause and effect relationship is not the same at any two institutions. The same can be said for strategies to address the discrepancy and it must be taken into account the exclusiveness of each institution and identify what strategy works best to solve this. Computer science is one of a small number of fields in science that women have been able to contribute from its inception due to their changing role in society over the last two centuries. Since computer science formally emerged as an academic field in the 1960s, it does not seem overly ironic that this is around the same time as the development in the field of women’s studies was emerging; women have had the rare opportunity to be involved in a development of a science field of academia. (Estrin, 1996), For example, Ada Lovegrace was

Gender Gap pivotal in the development of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine as a programmer in the 19th century (Wright, 1997) as well as many female programmers that were employed during the


Second World War that built the first electronic computers (Kraft, 1977). It would seem rational to believe that since women were present in actively contributing to computer science since its inception, that today women would be highly represented amongst the leaders in the industry and achieving great recognition in the field. This however, doesn’t seem to be the case. As Esposito (2008) echoes from a study conducted by the Association for Computing Machinery in collaboration with the National Science Foundation: The number of bachelor degrees awarded in computer science has been dropping overall, for men and women, but the pace of decline has been more rapid among women. In the 1985-86 academic year, a peak of 41,889 Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees were awarded in computer science; 36 percent went to women. But by 1993-94, the number of degrees fell to 24,200, with only 28.4 percent awarded to women. Yet at the same time, women accounted for 54.5 percent of degrees awarded in all disciplines. In just under a decade in the United States, the number of bachelor degrees afforded to women shrank from 15,080 down to 6,872; almost a 45.6 percent reduction in 8 years. All the while, women were still prevalent in academia over that same period of time. This trend has continued over the past 14 years as well. As Stross points out in The New York Times (2008, November 16) reports a rapid decline in undergraduate degrees in computer science and engineering fell from 19 percent in 2001-02 to 12 percent in 2006-07 from institutions that grant PhDs in Canada and the United States; one could argue the North American leaders in developing technology.

Gender Gap Does the future show any promise for an increase in the number of females entering the


field of computer science? According the College Board (2008), in 2008 the number of girls that took the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam was 2,594 compared to 12,068 boys; girls accounting for around 21.4 percent of the participation rate. Allow this may not be exact prediction in the number of women in computer science over the next decades, one must feasibly see a strong correlation between the two; students currently enrolled in AP courses now compared to leaders in the industry next decade. These students are the future of computer science and it seems that the future has the potential to be dominated by men. Women were making gains in computer science in the early 1980s when universities and colleges saw a rise from 0.5 percent to 4 percent in women declaring computer science majors, an eightfold jump; to the mid-1980s when women made up 40 percent of students in management computer science, which at the time was the second most popular major on campus (New York Times, 2008, November 16). Today, a generous estimation would be that women make up approximately 20 percent of the computer science field, which garners the questions: What are the causes for this decline? What can we do to attract women back into computer science? Is this even feasible and relevant? The exact causes of this decline are not exactly known but there seems to be some evidence that the major causes might be attributed to factors that include; early childhood influences, lack of role models, negative stereotyping and lack of resources for girls. At an early age, girls are constantly being influenced by items such as dolls, teddy bears, tea and other items not thought of as really technical or investigative in the sense of the word. While their male counterparts are often to items such as video games, Lego, building blocks and other investigative and technical toys. From an early age, boys are intentionally or

Gender Gap unintentionally guided towards items that have the same characteristics as computers; problem


solving, design, exploring and technical while at the same time, girls are not necessarily exposed to toys that possess these same traits. Boys have an early affection for computers and are encouraged to use them more than girls by both parents and teachers. Computers are often located in the boy’s room while girls tend to become spectators and only become involved by watching a male family member use technology (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). From the onset of childhood, girls are facing an uphill battle when it comes to being introduced and engaging in computers use; the norm appears to be limited to passive participation. Girl’s early childhood influences regarding technology seems to play a role in their choice to pursue computers later on in their life. The lack of positive female role models in the computer industry also seems to play a factor in the declination of women in computer science as well. The number of women in high positions in industry or academia seems to be far outweighed by their male counterparts, if they even exist at all. Of the 40 Hall of Fame Inductees in the San Diego Computer Museum (2008), only one is a female, pioneer Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace; and her contributions to the computer field were long before the turn of the twentieth century. Of the 57 list of current inductees (2008), only one was a female; Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems. If you were to ask high school students to name a famous person in the computing industry, most if not all, of the names would be male; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, etc. This female exclusion sends a message to girls that this is an industry that is, and always will be, male dominated. Why would an adventurous and bright girl want to enter a field in which she perceives there is no chance of success for upward mobility in the industry?

Gender Gap


Women are commonly thought to only use the computer as a machine that is limited to its social function and that to be in the industry requires total dedication of long, hard, arduous hours of isolationism. Lancaster (2001) reveals research showing that women are discouraged from misconceptions that persist about computing. The prevalent image of someone in the computer industry, or techie, can be astutely summarized by Vegso (2005): One of the biggest misperceptions of computing is the "geek factor". Students from high school think that computer scientists sit in cubicles and write code all day. The "geek factor" affects both male and female high school students, but it seems to have more negative effect on the female students. Even if a girl know that she does not have to become the person describe by Vegso to work in the computer industry, does this industry appears to be the type of working environment that women would like to spend 40 hours a day, 5 days a week for the majority of her adult life? This negative stereotype is not only driving women away from the industry, according to Cornelia (2007, April 17) these factors might be driving men away as well therefore, it is important to study why women are leaving the field as it may be correlated to why men are leaving the field as well. This is a major concern for nations as the computer industry is one of the fastest growing sectors and requires high skilled labor specialists. Another negative stereotype regarding females according to a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon (Margolis & Fisher, 2002) was that females were only allowed into the computer program on the basis of their gender and not their ability. There was a perceived notion that to increase the number of females in computer science programs, the female students had lower expectations than their male counterparts. The end result of this negative stereotype

Gender Gap


was that women began to believe this perception and it resulted in a poorer performance from the females. Women in the program felt an inferior complex due to the unfair and unfounded accusations and as a result, became afraid to ask questions. Again, to emphasize the point, why would an adventurous and bright girl want to enter a field of study in which she perceives there is a bias towards her due to the perception of lowered expectation? Any smart, intelligent person want to feel need of achievement and accomplishment on the basis of their merit, not any other preconceived notions. The availability of resources for girls in terms of computer access is not at the same level of boys in Canada. Studies conducted by Statistics Canada (2002, October 29) show that:

Findings from a detailed analysis of the relationship of access and use to students' background, based on PISA 2000, reveal that in Canada, 15-year-old girls were less likely than boys to have a computer at home and less likely to have Internet access at home.

The gender difference for 15-year-olds was consistent across OECD countries. In all countries, boys were more likely than girls to have a computer available at home for use almost every day, a few times each week or between once a week and once a month.

As previously stated by (Margolis & Fisher, 2002), the computer is normally situated in the boys room and the girls are not encouraged with the same enthusiasm as the boys. Girls do not find the idea of being so involved with a computer very appealing and shy away from computer labs where the boys congregate. So with less access at home combined with a lack of desire to hang around computer labs, girls’ exposure to

Gender Gap computers is less than the boys during their adolescent years. This exposure at an early age not only gives the boys the extra advantage of experience in computer usage but also, it is a great advertisement tool for computer science programs. I would equate it to exposure to a subject like physical education in high school and offering extra-curricular sports would be a great precursor for those students who go on to study Kinesiology or go to University on an athletic scholarship. It is hard for students to start a program in University without prior exposure to it in high school; this is where the boys have a distinct advantage over the girls. Now that we have identified some possible reasons why girls aren’t enrolling into computer science courses at the high school and university level, what can teachers do to address this imbalance to try and recover some of the momentum that was evident in the 1980s in terms of female enrollment? Ora Steyn, Computer Information System Department Head at the University of the Fraser Valley outlined the major points from Margolis, J. and Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing., which she feels can be implemented by high school teachers to increase female enrollment into computer related courses (O. Steyn, personal communication November 20, 2008).


The first strategy may seem obvious for some but is sometimes overlooked by teachers, is to focus on deliberate recruitment of girls. The teacher must really emphasize female recruitment to increase the number of females in computer science. However, the recruitment must target female groups rather than individuals as girls do not want to be the only girl in the class and getting girls to recruit others girls she feels ia sound practice.

Gender Gap This can be easily done if a girl that is a mover and shaker in the school can be recruited into computer science; turning the negative stereotype around and showing that it is indeed acceptable for girls to participate in computer science would have a dramatic effect on female enrollment.


Another practice suggested by O. Styen (personal communication, November 24, 2008) is to educate students, parents, staff and counselors as to what the students are learning in computer class. Computers have branched out from the early days of computer programming; animation, digital photography, graphic design, interior design are just a few areas of computer science that might appeal to females. Advertising these types of programs at parent teacher interviews and in girls’ bathrooms are just a couple of suggested ideas that are easy to implement yet effective in recruitment.

The experience gap was an area of concern for females at the university level and this inexperience kept girls away for fear from their perception that they knew less and this might hurt their GPA. O. Steyn (personal communication, November 20, 2008) suggests targeting females in middle school and from the onset create girl friendly classrooms and assignments. Making an assignment useful and personal while at the same time making it sensory and social is just an example of how a teacher can implement a simple teaching strategy to target the female students.

In a couple of cases, teachers that applied these ideas to their classroom reported a rise in female enrollment from 5 percent to 25 percent and 5 percent to 31 percent reports Margolis.and Fisher (2002).

Gender Gap


Margolis and Fisher (2002) also looked at Carnegie Mellon’s two phase strategy to attract more females. In 1995, the enrollment of women in the undergraduate Computer Science program was 8 percent and the school implemented their two phase program. The first stage deals with immediately attracting females into the department had some successful initiatives. They changed the curriculum to include mini courses to help bridge the experience gap for male and female students eliminating the need for experience as a prerequisite for admission. They also placed experienced teachers in the first and second year courses as well as trained the faculty on diversity; in addition to that, they educated the faculty to value other models than the hacker culture that seemed to dominate the computer landscape at Carnegie Mellon. The curriculum was changed to include real-world context with connections to other disciplines with problems to include all learning styles. An example of this would be a course called Computer Science in the Community where students selected non-profit organizations to create software for. However, they did come across a few initiatives that they found were not successful. The main two being a vigorous telephone and letter campaign to recruit female students as well the establishment and sustainability of a women’s group. They found the campaign to be too

impersonal for success and the women’s group dwindled when members graduated. The second stage was implemented following the successful first stage and it dealt with retention of their existing female students. The action taken to keep females in the program included; monitoring and peer tutoring for trouble areas and course, dinner events with female faculty and student to allow communication and networking, a separate webpage for female students, and a big sister/little sister program.

Gender Gap The results were positive for Carnegie Mellon in terms attracting and keeping female


students in the Computer Science program. The female enrollment increased from 8 percent in 1995 up to 42 percent in 2000. Margolis and Fisher (2002) contribute Carnegie Mellon’s success to these major factors. Carnegie Mellon paid ferocious attention to the quality of the student experience and accommodated a wide variety of experience in the entry level curricula. They allowed students the opportunity to see the technology at work and provided structures for women to communicate and come together. Margolis and Fisher (2002) also warns that there is no “one size fits all” solution and you solution must suit your environment that you are operating in. Every institution will need a champion for the cause to take the lead. As you can see, some post-secondary institutions have identified that there exists a large discrepancy between males and females in post-secondary institutions across North America. Several of these institutions are addressing this gender gap and trying to identify why such a gap exists. It is important to remember the uniqueness of each college or university and although the trends of cause and effect may be apparent on a national or international basis, it may not be relevant at that particular college or university. The same philosophy must be considered when trying to implement strategies to address these shortages. Over time, an institution can overcome these gender gaps and show females that computer science is indeed a viable opportunity choice. The field of technology is rapidly growing and ever changing; it is an exciting and dynamic field to enter. Hopefully, over time the number of females entering the technology sector will be increasing and the gender gap is more equitable.

Gender Gap References


College Board AP Central National Summary Reports, Retrieved on November 2, 2008, from Computer Hall of Fame, Retrieved on November 18, 2008 from Cornelia, Dean, Computer Science Takes Steps to Bring Women to the Fold. New York Times, April 17, 2007. Esposito, Andi, Steady Decline in Female Computer Majors is Troubling, Telegram & Business Editor, 2008. Estrin, Thelma, Women’s Studies and Computer Science; Their Intersection, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 18, No. 3, 1998. Kraft, Phillip, Programmers and Managers: The Routinization of Computer Programming in the United States, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1977. Lancaster, Hal, Career Journal: Women Try to Break Tech-Glass Ceiling. Wall Street Journal, Brussels, August 14, 2001. Margolis, J. & Fisher. A. (2002). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Statistics Canada, Retrieved on November 7, 2008 from Stross, Randall, What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?, The New York Times, November 16, 2008, page BU4. Vegso, Jay, May 2005 edition of Computing Research News, Vol 17, No , May 2005. Wright, Rosemary, Women Computer Professionals – Controlled Progress in a Male Occupation, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

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