Archive for June 16, 2009

Women Programming, Just Not In CS

I gave a talk last week where I was attacked for asking students to program in my Media Computation classes.  “Women don’t want to program.  That will drive them away!”  Is it the activity of programming that leads to our lack of diversity, or something else?

My student, Brian Dorn, is studying end-user programmers.  These are professionals who are not software developers, but who do write programs.  In his studies, these are JavaScript (or ActionScript) users who program for Web pages or for Photoshop.  He just completed a round of interviews with his target population.  Biggest surprise?  Lots of members of minority groups, and lots of women.

I don’t want to steal any of Brian’s thunder and report his results early.  I’m not going to get into where Brian got his interviewees and if it was really a valid sample.  I want to raise the possibility: What if that result generalizes?

We know that there are too few women and minorities amongst professional software developers or undergraduates studying computing.  Almost nobody knows much about professionals from other fields who develop software for their own purposes.  The estimates that have been attempted suggest that there are many, many more end-user programmers than professional software developers.  What if that community reflects  the demographics of our overall population?  What if it’s half female and appropriately diverse?

That would suggest that we’re lacking women in our computer science classes and in the field because of perceptions of the classes and the field (whether or not they’re true), not because of the activity.  That’s a radical idea which suggests some very different strategies for those of us working to broaden participation in computing.  It could be that programming really is seen as fun and beautiful, but it’s how we do our classes and the conditions of software development jobs that are at fault for the lack of diversity.  That would be important to know, because it might be easier to change our classes than it is to change the activity within the field.

June 16, 2009 at 9:39 pm 3 comments


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