Lack of women in CS is our problem to fix, regardless of cause

April 6, 2011 at 8:16 am 15 comments

The author of the below referenced piece and I disagree when it comes to method, but not goal.  There are too few women in Physics (and CS), points out the article. Shirley Tilghman (President of Princeton) says women are making that choice, so there is no more problem to fix.  The author argues that there are influences that encourage women not to choose Physics (and CS).  The author, Shanahan, says at the beginning of her piece (end of the second paragraph) that for her the question is “Why?”  Why don’t women choose to go into science?  Shanahan seems to suggest that the women who are choosing not to go into science because they’ve been led astray in K-12, thus the choice that Tlighman suggests is constrained and may not reflect their choice if they had been raised without bias. (When I told Barb about this piece, she asked, “Then why were there 40% women back in the 80’s?  Did the K-12 school system become so biased so quickly?”)

I take a more proactive/prescriptive stance.  It’s a problem that women aren’t going into science (and CS) regardless of whether they had a biased up-bringing.  While Shanahan is suggesting that we seek to determine if there was bias (her “why?” question), I’m proposing that we insert bias (as necessary) in favor of having more women, e.g., “how do get more women to choose CS?”.  I’m less concerned with correcting potential inequality, and I am more concerned about too few women as being detrimental to our field.  In a sense, I’m proposing more of a marketing approach than a sociological one, more engineering/problem-solving than science/knowledge-building.

ABI and NCWIT argue that having too few women in CS hurts CS, e.g., in terms of too little diversity in design decisions.  Sue Rosser showed years ago how a lack of women in medicine led to decisions that were good for men, but actually cost women’s lives.

It’s great that women have choices.  That they’re not choosing CS is our problem — maybe it’s a marketing problem, maybe it’s an image problem, maybe it’s a cultural problem.  But in general, the community should come to agreement that it’s our problem to fix.  Quite apart from an equality issue or how teachers are steering students, we in CS are worse off for having too few women, and that’s the problem that we own and have to address.  I agree with Shanahan that it’s always good to ask “Why.”  But if you’re sick, you’re less concerned with how you got it, and more concerned with finding a cure.

“When will we know when we can declare victory? For years I proceeded on the assumption that victory was equal participation of men and women in all branches of science and engineering. Today I’m not so sure…. It’s possible that we will come to understand that some fraction of the asymmetries in the distribution of women in the sciences, with women far more well represented in the life sciences and less so in the physical sciences, is the result of women seeking those fields in which they are able to make the greatest contribution in their own judgement. As scientists we have to be open to that possibility.”

– Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University, speaking at Queen’s University [1]

The question of gender representation in science is an incredibly difficult one. Women are underrepresented in science as a whole, especially in senior positions, but the disparity can be even more dramatic, or in other cases disappear, when we narrow the focus to particular fields.

Over the last half-century, efforts to recruit and encourage women to pursue careers in science have been very successful, but they have not been evenly distributed. In 1966, for example, women earned only a quarter of the undergraduate biology degrees awarded in the U.S. By 2007, however, women out numbered men, taking 60 percent of these same degrees. In physics, though, these numbers have barely budged, with the percentage of undergraduate degrees earned by women rising from 14 percent to only 21 percent over the same time period. The question, of course, is why?

via Guest Blog: Can we declare victory for women in their participation in science? Not yet.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie MacKellar  |  April 6, 2011 at 8:38 am

    A big difference between physics and computer science is that computer science once DID have larger numbers of women. When I majored in CS in the early 80’s, the students in my major were about 40% female at my school. When I went to grad school in the mid 80’s, almost half the entering students were women at my school (a different school from my undergrad school). Others of my age have reported the same thing. The dropoff happened later, in the late 80’s and onwards. My pet theory has always been that the advent of PCs (and the loss of the social bonding element of working in a group lab), and the emphasis on gaming drove women out. But that is not based on anything except my own observations. In any case, that means that we know that women, under the right conditions, can be attracted to computer science.
    The other important thing is that women are not choosing computer science for largely the same reasons that the best male students are not choosing it – they see better options in other majors. And that is a big, big problem for computer science. I was very struck by a comment made by one of the NSF people at a workshop at the Milwaukee SIGCSE (sorry, don’t remember which person on the panel) who said that 15 years ago, students majoring in CS had been A and B students in high school, but now we are getting the B and C students. I suspect that the things we need to do to get women into the field are the same things that we need to do to get the best men into the field.

  • 2. Norcross Schools  |  April 6, 2011 at 8:57 am

    I take issue with the premise that we should engineer CS education in order to lure more women. First of all, women/young ladies are aware of the opportunities. They are simple choosing, generally speaking, to pursue other avenues. I have complete faith in leaving it to the women to choose. In my experience, they are capable of making sound decisions on their careers and education.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  April 6, 2011 at 9:37 am

      I’m actually arguing broader than that — we should engineer CS education, and maybe our development practices (maybe more social?) and our corporate culture (maybe more family-friendly and supporting social good causes?) as well. I’m sure that women are choosing reasonably. And that they’re not choosing CS is our problem. Bonnie nailed it. Maybe it’s our asocial culture and practices — then, we ought to develop more social ones. We want to get smart people of both genders, and if they are reasonably, rationally choosing other than CS, then WE have a big problem and need to change our practices

  • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 6, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I am very curious about why CS has slipped as a “premium” major.

    Is it that the job market has been very volatile, with repeated boom-and-bust cycles?

    Is it that math preparation has been getting weaker? A big growth in science has been in biology majors, despite the lack of jobs, because it is perceived as not needing much math.

    Have the entry CS courses been getting more boring? (That is hard for me to imagine, as they were pretty boring in the 70s and 80s.)

    Have the mid-level CS courses gotten more boring? Probably. When I was taking analysis of algorithms and data structures courses, all the material was pretty new and the instructors were excited about it. Now they are teaching 30-year-old concepts, and it is dry as dust.

    Where is the cutting-edge computer science? Do the undergrads ever see it? In other majors, undergrads get to participate in real research (though sometimes just as “hands” in the lab). When do the CS majors get to do something that isn’t just an exercise that has been done a million times already?

    • 5. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  April 7, 2011 at 2:47 am

      My experience as an Honours CS and Physics student is that the biggest problem is the lack of community for the top CS students.

      There are no Honours CS courses at my university, nor are there at most institutions. In physics, and in math, and many other fields, it is the norm to have the top students in a different pipeline of courses for at least the first two years. You get two things out of this: more specialized teaching for the bright students, and very importantly, a community that develops of the students in this pipeline.

      You simply don’t have this in CS. The top students in CS don’t get to know each other. My experience as a bright student in the first two years of my degree was that I didn’t know who the other bright students in my programme were.

      But I knew who the other bright students in math were, and in physics — we had our Honours classes together and had our community. There is an important source of peer support in these crowds. It is through my peers in these two communities that I got a lot of encouragement to do undergrad research, to be a TA, to take more challenging courses, to go to conferences, to apply to grad school, etc.

      If you look at the Honours enrollments in CS at my uni, the overwhelming majority of the students are in Combined Honours programmes — with math, physics, biology, or microbiology. All these disciplines have established communities for their Honours students.

      And so, the top students in CS don’t stick around the CS department. We stick around with our friends in our other major. And soon enough, since that’s where the community is, that’s where the focus is. Nearly all of the CS/physics students go to grad school in physics, for example.

      That’s if they finish the CS component of their degree. Because, as you said — mid-level CS is “dry as dust”. I’ve had many friends start off in CS/physics or CS/math but then switch to physics or math, just because mid-level CS was so unengaging for them.

      We spend a lot of time in the CS education community looking at how the average student does, or how the weaker students do — but there’s really no attention paid to how to cater to the better students. For many top students, the lack of Honours CS courses tells them that CS is not a place for them.

  • 6. Mike  |  April 6, 2011 at 11:14 am

    I think it’s simply because of the fact that CS tends to attract people who are not as social as the average person. On average, women tend to be more social than men, ergo there are more men in CS than women.

    Programming in and of itself has traditionally been a largely individual exercise. Now, there are new software development methodologies that lend themselves more to the social personality, like pair-programming. So maybe we just need to think of new ways to make programming less of an individualistic activity.

  • 7. Bonnie MacKellar  |  April 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    But out in industry, programming is NOT an individualistic activity. We always worked in groups and collaborated extensively. One of the big complaints of managers out in industry is that hires that are fresh out of computer science programs have no idea how to communicate with others, or to collaborate effectively. I think it is one of the things we should be stressing in computer science programs.
    I think computer science programs are the culprit in pushing this individualistic view of computer science, and it really needs to change.

  • 8. Susan Sim  |  April 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    I’m a woman in computing. I am growing increasingly dissatisfied with efforts to increase the number of women in the field. I know these efforts are good for computing, but are they good for the women we bring in?

    After all, what are we bringing them into? A male dominated field that doesn’t value them and what they’re interested in? Working in a cube farm with nerds to be judged for what they wear? To be the only woman engineer on the team, and be ignored because people assume that they’re not capable?

    Of course, not everyone is so unenlightened, but I encounter it far too often for them to be isolated incidents. I think progress *is* being made, but it’s still a hard row to hoe and only the exceptional survive. I look forward to the day when average women can enter computing without having to be anybody’s role model.

  • 9. Alfred Thompson  |  April 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    I can’t help but thing that Shirley Tilghman would be getting more flack for her opinion is she were a he. But that is a tangent.

    We need more women in CS. I believe that strongly. Why are they staying away? That question is only interesting to me if it leads to finding ways to get more into the field.

    We need more perspectives. We need more and different attitudes. We need to make sure that software meets everyone’s needs and frankly men are not always the best ones to understand what women need. Being a husband will teach you that. 🙂

  • 10. Lisa  |  April 6, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    Well said Mark. Thank you for posting this. I’ve always believed it is an “all of the above” issue: a marketing issue, a culture issue, and an image issue. To me, fixing culture is necessary before image will change and marketing will work.

    Fixing culture must occur at all levels: K-12, post-secondary, and industry. We all need to look at our CS cultures and critically reflect on how inclusive it is: for women and underrepresented men.

  • 11. Erik Engbrecht  |  April 6, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    I have a theory that I’ve been toying with about industry and women in engineering. It’s just a theory but here it goes…

    Where I work:
    1. High performers are given a substantial amount of encouragement to assume “leadership positions.” In my experience, whether it’s intentional or not, “leadership” translates into “management.”
    2. Women and minorities are provided with much more support than white males, and the support is provided more aggressively. Especially for high performers.
    3. The ranks of management and pre-management leadership positions contain a disproportionate number of women relative to the general engineering population.
    4. The ranks of purely technical senior people are more heavily dominated by men than the general engineering population.

    My theory is that providing women more encouragement and support, per capita, to enter leadership positions than men makes women more likely to enter management or technical leadership positions than don’t involve developing significant technical depth. This in turn reenforces a male dominated technical culture.

    My personal experience is that one must willfully and continuously avoid becoming a manager, or at least manager-like, and in order to continue to grow in terms of technical expertise. I can’t fathom how hard it would be if I received “more support.”

  • […] Guzdial, in the Computing Education blog posted an opinion that Lack of women in CS is our problem to fix, regardless of cause.  The blog post itself is ok, but I was particularly struck by one of the comments by Elizabeth […]

  • 13. Bijan Parsia  |  April 11, 2011 at 5:22 am

    Hear hear! Let’s put the responsibility where it belongs.

    @Susan, this issue haunts me! I think the key, of course, is that we have to transform the culture which, by happenstance, is also the best way to improve recruitment. (Or, at least, a necessary precursor.)

  • 14. Kathi Fisler  |  April 11, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Has anyone ever formally studied the relative time commitments for different majors? When my academic advisees are balancing their schedules wrt workloads, I frequently hear them say that bio classes are light workload and good counterweight to programming-intensive CS courses. A colleague of mine (at another school) looked at the hours students reported putting in on course evals campus wide, and found CS had by far the highest workloads (including the sciences).

    If majoring in a subject expects slavish devotion, that could be a serious deciding factor for students (male or female) with significant interests outside of academics or their major.

    The social concerns focus on culture within the discipline. I think workload looks at culture issues around the discipline as well.


    • 15. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 11, 2011 at 7:36 am

      Workload issues vary from place to place, but CS tends to fall in the middle or at the low end of the engineering majors for work load, which puts it near the high end for science loads, and way above humanities and social science workloads.

      Workload is a big part of the reason few students are choosing STEM majors, but no one in the humanities wants to increase student workload and no one in the sciences wants to reduce it.


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