I don’t believe it: Early STEM Education Will Lead to More Women in IT

April 22, 2014 at 9:03 am 28 comments

I don’t believe the main propositions of the article below. Not all STEM education will lead to more women discovering an interest in IT.  Putting computing as a mandatory subject in all schools will not necessarily improve motivation and engagement in CS, and it’s a long stretch to say that that will lead to more people in IT jobs.

I addressed the quote below, by Ashley Gavin, in my Blog@CACM post for this month: The Danger of Requiring CS in US K-12 Schools.

“You make it an option, the girl is not going to take it. You have to make it mandatory and start it at a young age,” says Ashley Gavin, curriculum director at Girls Who Code, a nonprofit working to expose more girls to computer science at a young age that has drawn support from leading tech firms such as Google, Microsoft and Intel.

“It’s important to start early because, most of the fields that people go into, they have exposure before they get to college. We all study English before we get to college, we all study history and … social studies before we get to college,” Gavin says. “No one has any idea what computer science is. By the time you get to college, you develop fear of things you don’t know. Therefore early exposure is really important.”

via Early STEM Education Will Lead to More Women in IT – CIO.com.

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28 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Be sure to read the comment to the Blog@CACM post — it’s funny and insightful. “As a society, we see the education system as a magical way to create better adults than we were.”

    • 2. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 22, 2014 at 8:06 pm

      Furthermore, adults will never meet the criteria Justin Megawarne mentions. That’s because they don’t care about computing any more than they do about photosynthesis or favelas. What they seem to be totally focused on is their children having a comfortable middle-class life with a nice house, a pool, and a ski-doo. That’s the thing they will all get behind. It just seems right now that building apps is a way to get there.

      I got a start in computing before it became a big thing in India, and starting from then, all my life I’ve had lay-people tell me how lucrative or job-secure it must be to be in computing. Exciting comes much lower on the list (though even then as a quasi-complaint: how do you keep up with all this change). Intellectually stimulating, virtually never at all. I try to turn the conversation that way, but it usually ends with something along the lines of, “Well, I never understood anything about how my computer works other than using Word, but you people who do, you’re going to have a good job for a long time”. That is not a populace swayed by the power of Computational Thinking.

      • 3. Justin Megawarne  |  July 1, 2014 at 9:54 am

        While I have no objection to a comfortable life with a nice house, a pool and a ski-doo (indeed, I would very much like one myself), its elevation to the ultimate goal of Western civilization is a cultural defect, indicating that we do not value knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or art for art’s sake. It is a cultural defect that thinking and knowledge are seen as a means to an end, and not ends in themselves. And the reason it is a defect is because it is a barrier to mass human contentment. Which makes it a truly _terrible_ cultural defect.

        If we dial back to Aristotle, happiness was considered the life of contemplation, where a man pursues art and knowledge for their own reward. This manner of thinking triggered towering waves of beauty and exploration, the rewards of which we reap to this very day, every day. I am confident that anybody fortunate enough to wind up in a field where the pursuit of beauty, understanding and creativity are a quotidian lifestyle will support this point until the day they die, and would not give it up for anything in the world, save coercive force or foolish judgement; and for the latter, they would pay for it in the incursion of a lifetime of wretchedness, bitterness and bottomless regret.

        However, despite this ancient and fundamental insight, our modern view is that happiness is the amount of crap you collect relative to the Joneses in an asinine and torturous feedback loop, the size of your very own special integer in a bank computer, and having a profitable career in management where your life’s achievement is the production of negative wealth for involuntary organizations of fearful urban survivalists, despite nourishment being so abundant that we literally wash ourselves with chocolate. And by urban survivalist, I mean the myth that if we don’t work and make a “contribution” to society (i.e. someone in power), we are destined to live in abject poverty and hunger and destitution and misery and homelessness, we will die three times over, and we will go to hell for violating the precious puritanical work ethic that is the binding force of humanity.

        I don’t think I need to rant much further for any thinking person to see the absurdity of this arrangement.

        So while some fear that we are going backwards culturally and intellectually, in some sense I long for that to be true. I think antiquity would have been fascinated with programming for programming’s sake, and I see no reason it cannot be revived today. It can be achieved by simply _doing_ it for the sheer hell of it, for the beaming sense of happiness one achieves when one _figures something out_ or _creates something beautiful_.

        However, it is clear that will _not_ be achieved by imposing it on our youngsters while refusing to value it ourselves. If we do not care to “waste” our own time on it, despite it being a fantastic way to waste one’s time, we cannot expect them to do similarly. Indeed, to make someone love and appreciate what you _wish_ you did is an exercise in hypocrisy, bullshit and sadomasochism: not only do you punish the child with your deceitful demands, but you punish yourself through a frustrating and ultimately fruitless attempt at vicarious childhood.

        So, parents, if you want your children to value programming (yes, programming, not the drudge-like epithet of “coding”), get down and figure out why it’s so interesting in the first place. Maybe it is actually terribly boring and you don’t want to inflict it on anybody. How can you know unless you look?

        But, with that said, if you give it a good shot, I promise you will be sucked into a world of innumerable possibilities and a level of creative feedback that is unparalleled by any other medium. You will have sleepless nights harangued by problems that you feel _compelled_ to resolve, but yet you will love doing it. You will create powerful mental levers for the betterment of yourself, your family and your fellow man, and glorious works of art and logic, the scale of which were unimaginable only 60 years ago. You will explore modes of thinking that you didn’t even conceive of existing, and explore areas of human understanding that were previously frightening and inaccessible. You will talk incessantly about the details of this system, or the implications of that theory, and have a spring in your intellectual step that you wrongly thought was the confine of philosophers, scientists, theologians, engineers and geniuses. Your mind will open up and you will glimpse better versions of the truth.

        And your children will watch. And then they will follow. Who wouldn’t?

        • 4. Justin Megawarne  |  July 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

          Just a qualifier: I hope that, in the context of this blog post, my use of the word “man” will be charitably interpreted as being gender neutral, as that is the spirit in which it was meant. And should that not be a sufficient throat-clearing, then may the full force of punishment rain upon me such that I know better for next time!

  • 5. Franklin Chen  |  April 22, 2014 at 10:26 am

    It is definitely naive to project that randomly “providing” education in anything will change the nature of the adult work force. To take a very simple example: there has been a lot of work to promote chess among children in the US in the past decades. But the vast majority of children who play chess do not even continue playing the game after elementary school or junior high, much less adopt it as a career choice. On the other hand, chess instruction in countries such as Armenia has resulted in much more of a lifelong relationship with chess (as well as Armenia becoming a per capita professional chess powerhouse). The nature of the instruction, and of continued encouragement and support for years, all the way through a general national culture, is what really works.

  • 6. Leonard C. Klein  |  April 22, 2014 at 11:02 am

    It is true that one can not say that more of x will lead to more of y, but if someone never gets any x ( computer science of science) then they can not become excited about it. More exposure can lead to more excitement and if the more is done well, a huge assumption, it will have a better chance to increase excitement.

    • 7. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 22, 2014 at 7:52 pm

      Students are not sitting in a vacuum; they’re surrounded by computation, and I imagine at least mildly aware of its existence. Therefore, it is not that they are un-exposed. But curricula like the old AP CS can have the effect of quashing any interest they might have felt. That is, more exposure can very much lead to less excitement for a subject that does have other means of offering exposure. (In contrast, geology does not seem the sort of thing that is _explicitly_ “in the air” in media, society, or lives. So for a subject like that, I can see the argument that they cannot get excited about something whose very existence they are barely aware of. But it seems very hard to make that case for computing.)

      • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2014 at 7:57 pm

        There is lots of computing around students, but seeing computation is actually very difficult. Our user-interfaces are too good — students don’t see how computing is created. Most students never see programming, a programmer, or source code. I don’t see any evidence that having AP CS in any way quashes interest. 90% of high schools have no AP CS — students have nothing to base an opinion on. Our evidence in Georgia from GaComputes suggests that schools that offer AP CS have many more under-represented minorities go on to take more CS.

        • 9. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 22, 2014 at 8:08 pm

          I agree with your point about interfaces. I meant media exposure, not exposure to ideas or details.

          Do you have evidence that the AP CS AB curriculum actually increased interest in CS?

          • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2014 at 8:14 pm

            Causal, no. Two pieces of correlation data:

            (1) Shelly Engelman found in our studies of Georgia students that having any CS classes in the high school (including AP CS A — AB disappeared a half dozen years ago) was highly correlated with URM students taking CS in higher education. The correlation was much lower for white students. White students might discover CS even without ever having CS in high school (e.g., through family connections, through using computing at home, etc.). This was a study of kids in CS1 and CS2. We don’t have data about URM students who had AP CS in their high school but decided not to take more in College.

            (2) The College Board has reported that students who take the AP CS exam are more likely to take more CS in undergraduate than for any other X (where AP X precedes taking X in College). This may be a selection effect: Since AP CS is so rare, students who take it may have already decided to pursue CS in undergraduate.

            • 11. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 22, 2014 at 8:58 pm

              As an aside: I asked about AP AB only because it’s the curriculum I find the most suspect. So I was asking about the period until when it disappeared. I do not lament its loss, despite the study in part 1 of your reply, because I hope those students are getting AP A instead. As for part 2, I think the nature of AP AB made it _especially_ likely that there was a selection effect.

  • 12. Doug Blank  |  April 22, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    An important aspect of this debate is that Ashley is a young woman, right out of the modern CS classroom, directly affected by mediacomp, robots, and many other advances in education. This is not a debate between two middle aged white guys… well, only half-not. (You may have met Ashley… she was the first IPRE fellow at Bryn Mawr College).

    It could well be that there is a changing tide. Regardless of this particular issue, I can only see that things are getting better with projects like “Girls Who Code”, and with enthusiastic people like Ashley helping!

    IPRE – http://www.roboteducation.org/Files/2007-AnnualReport.pdf‎ (page 8 has a picture of Ashley as a student)

    • 13. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2014 at 6:37 pm

      Do I still count as “middle-aged” if I have my AARP card?

      • 14. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  April 23, 2014 at 2:57 pm

        Considering I’m almost 40 and feel like a youngster among fellow faculty, yes, you count as middle-aged to me. 🙂

  • 15. Stephen Downes  |  April 22, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Why are girls not taking CS? Not because there are no educational opportunities. Rather, it’s because CS has allowed, even encouraged, an openly misogynist culture which persists to this day.

    • 16. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2014 at 6:36 pm

      I suspect that the openly misogynist culture leads to a lack of retention, Stephen, but I’m not convinced that it’s why female students aren’t taking CS. How would they know that it’s misogynist until they got access?

      • 17. Alisha A. Waller  |  May 14, 2014 at 10:44 am

        You don’t have to participate in something to be strongly convinced that it has a culture that is hostile toward people like you, and therefore toward you. Young women in U.S. high schools have experienced a misogynist culture since they were born, whether or not they can name it as such. They have been differentially treated in math and science courses since elementary school by nearly all teachers (although the teachers may have no intention of doing so) and their society (including their peers) have given the consistent message that STEM is not for them. The issue of social justice with respect to education is a very complex one that will take networks of interventions to change the culture and immense patience coupled with relentless effort.

    • 18. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  April 23, 2014 at 3:03 pm

      Or is the misogynist culture the by-product of the lack of participation by females?

      Actually, I would say that it’s not necessarily (or just) a misogynist culture, per se. Rather, we have–pardon the language–an asshole culture. People like Steve Jobs, Linus Torvalds, and other notoriously cantankerous folk are allowed to be that way–and even worshipped–because they are perceived as brilliant. The emphasis on meritocracy places a higher reward on intellectual contribution than on courtesy.

      • 19. Justin Megawarne  |  July 1, 2014 at 10:58 am

        Intellectual contribution can be more important than courtesy, particularly where courtesy is masking or prohibiting a proper exposition of the truth. That can happen when people are emotionally caught up in a false idea, and it can require a shock to pull them out of it. There is value in the incisive rebuttal, and even in the roasting flame.

        However, it is not _typically_ the case in programming communities that people are wedded to their inaccuracies, and it is clear that certain personalities engage in the behaviour they do due to serious emotional immaturity or because social power has corrupted their humanity. This is often framed as “forthrightness” or a “no bullshit attitude”, but where the participants have no desire to cloud reality (i.e. most programmers), this style is a rude and pointless attempt to belittle one’s fellow practitioner.

        Whether this is reflection on _women’s_ participation or not, I couldn’t be sure; but I think it would be false to imply that women value courtesy over harsh intellectual contribution. I don’t believe you have meant to suggest that, but nevertheless it is a common refrain elsewhere where this theme is concerned.

        Personally, I find it a mystery as to why there are so few women in programming. Misogyny is an oversimplistic explanation, because fields such as law, politics and finance are rife with misogyny. Indeed it is utterly pandemic in those subjects, in my experience, and at levels to which the misogyny in the computing world is _relatively_ benign. Yet they have a much higher ratio of women to men than programming. It is a disservice to the female spirit to miss the reality that women see such farcical, primate behaviour as a social injustice to be challenged directly. The more an area is infected by chauvinism, the fiercer the attack will be from the feminist minded, regardless of their incumbent genitalia.

        The usual banal snipes about women’s brains can be casually rejected without wasting a breath on argumentation.

        But there is a more insidious argument about social disciplines vs. solitary ones that requires fierce refutation. It has become a meme to suggest that women avoid programming because it is a personal activity, with little social contact, and frequently requiring few social skills. Beside the point that this is a ridiculous characterization of programming, if this were true we would see fewer women artists, singer-songwriters, poets, writers, intellectuals, or any other activities in which introversion, self-absorption and solitude are common traits. So I think it is important for people to stop reiterating this patently false hypothesis.

        What does that leave us with? You know, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised to find that those in control of admissions to CS courses are intentionally rejecting women for being women, and those in charge of hiring are intentionally doing similarly. As for the volunteer community, it doesn’t take long to find examples of men’s embarrassing, stupid and animalistic behaviour toward women. I wouldn’t be surprised if women are coming in droves, but it is hidden under a disorganized and unconscious conspiracy that holds that women are not welcome on computing courses, in the computing industry, or in the community at large. And the usual excuse will be a contortion of admissions policy and academic merit.

        I think I heard it best from an executive who said: “We will not see equality until a mediocre black woman can rise to the same level as a mediocre white man.” There is much to resent in that statement, but it illuminates a damning perspective. Perhaps we shall not see equality in computing until a mediocre female programmer can enjoy the same level of participation as a mediocre male programmer.

        A closing point: isn’t it interesting that many early programmers were women? Then somebody realized it was not mere clerical work. Get out of the way, ladies: this brain stuff is man’s work.

  • 20. Diana  |  April 22, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    While it’s not a foregone conclusion that having everyone try computer science will make more people enter STEM, I think there is a lot of evidence that makes it a reasonable theory. In addition, I think the goals are far beyond just creating more IT professionals. In the next generations, having rudimentary scripting skills, or at least the confidence to believe you can do something in that area if need be, is huge. Given cultural stereotypes and the confidence gap females face, having everyone gain some skills and, more importantly, confidence, might make a huge difference.

    The biggest gap between representation in society and representation in computer science is females (in terms of absolute numbers). So even small percentage points in improvement would make a big difference.

    Some reasons why it makes sense to make computer science a “normal” part of the school day rather than relegated to outreach activities that are based on choice, family income, and/or transportation:

    These effects are summarized well in this recent article:
    and I talk specifically about how they affect women in CS in my book:

    a) Females are much more risk-averse than males, and choosing a major in which you have no experience is a HUGE risk.

    b) Females have high confidence in elementary school, so early experience during this time might have long-term effects

    c) The differing experience levels in CS programs makes early classes a joke for some and excruciating for others. This feeds into fixed mindsets and stereotype threat. This and the confidence gap are likely to be causes of females transferring out at higher GPA’s than males. If we can provide a more consistent set of experience, then this effect will be dampened.

    Just think how different computer science would be in college if it were more like Math – almost all students come in with consistent background, differing only by a few courses.

    • 21. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2014 at 7:12 pm

      The article I’m referencing says something different than your first sentence, Diana. It’s arguing that pushing more girls into STEM will result in more women in IT. I don’t see any evidence to believe that’s true.

      A “normal” part of the school day doesn’t necessarily mean a requirement, a mandate. Biology and Chemistry are normal in many high schools, but aren’t required of anyone. Instead, there is a science requirement that several classes can meet. Why not include CS in that list?

    • 22. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  April 23, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      “Just think how different computer science would be in college if it were more like Math – almost all students come in with consistent background, differing only by a few courses.”

      This was going to be my main point (referencing Ashley’s assertion that CS needs to be mandatory, as well), but I draw the opposite conclusion. I’m not a historian and I wasn’t around back then, but I would imagine that when math became required for all students, there was no magical surge in interest. Furthermore, I doubt that it created a sudden surge in female mathematicians. In fact, based on my limited understanding of psychology (motivational theory, in particular) and economics, I would guess that the result would be the opposite: mandating CS would lead to decreased interest, on average.

      From what I understand, math had a long history that resembled that of CS: underrepresentation of females. The efforts that proved to be most successful at undoing this imbalance were those that reached out to females on personal terms. That is, they didn’t talk about how many great jobs there were in math. Instead, they highlighted how statistics could be used to identify and fight pandemics. They emphasized how math and physics could be used to make cars safer. In short, they focused on how math could be used to improve society and create a social benefit. These efforts (again, I’m just paraphrasing from what I’ve read and/or heard informally) were based on empirical evidence of what matters to girls.

      I believe that successful efforts for increasing participation in CS must do the same thing. And, as Mark has said repeatedly, one of the first steps toward that goal is to offer–but not require–CS early on. I do not feel that mandating it is the way to go.

      • 23. Diana  |  April 25, 2014 at 6:14 pm

        Interesting. I read both of your replies, and I just don’t see it. I’m surprised that there’s no acknolwedgment that it could work given all the research in gender differences that point towards it.

        ” I don’t see any evidence to believe that’s true” – but what about the research on confidence gap and risk aversion? Those were what I cited – studies. So if females are less confident and more risk averse, and they have 0 exposure to computer science, why would they choose CS as a major? Requiring CS would give them experience – exposure – a chance to see that they are just as good at it as the males in the room. How would that not help?

        I’m not saying it’s the only solution or the best solution, merely that I think it might work, and I think there are studies that back that up. Making it an option with biology and chemistry might work, too. But chemistry and biology are now “known” fields for females, so risk averse, unconfident females may still shy away from CS. And I acknowledge that requiring CS still might not work – there are just too many factors at work. And I could certainly see arguments that there are downsides that outweigh the gains. But I really think there are compelling arguments for why it *might* work.

        a) I agree my goal is different from the article’s. I should have been more specific. I do strongly believe, based on the research available for gender, confidence, stereotype threat, and risk aversion, that requiring CS would likely lead to an increase in the number of females pursuing computing careers. I just am not sure if that’s a big enough goal to make something required. But the other goal is a much broader goal, and may be enough to make it required.

        b) I’m still on the fence about whether I actually think it should be required. I do think it would increase the number of females, and it would give people a broad computing base to become future innovators, but is that enough of a reason to make it required for ALL students? A lot of students *won’t* be doing that. So I’d prefer to make it required for college entrance rather than for high school graduation. Those are two very different things, and students going to college are my target, not every student graduating high school.

        I will admit that I don’t know the history behind math. I just see that english, math, history, biology, and chemistry are very, very popular choices for females – is it really just coincidence that their names match the names of high school classes (in which females excel)?

        So – given the confidence gap, risk aversion, and experience gap between males and females at the time they choose college majors, why is it that you believe this couldn’t work? (not that something could work, too – but that this wouldn’t work)

        • 24. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 26, 2014 at 2:58 am

          I’d find your argument more convincing if the number of females in physics was close to parity, but physics does almost as badly at gender balance as computer science. But physics is a high school course that is universally offered.

          Hmm, it isn’t universally required, but then neither is calculus.

          I don’t think that requiring CS is feasible for at least a decade—there simply aren’t enough CS teachers, not enough capacity to train new ones.

        • 25. Mark Guzdial  |  April 26, 2014 at 11:55 am

          Absolutely, there is a confidence gap and there is risk aversion. Those factors exist. Are those the only factors influencing women going into IT? If you mandate CS courses, will that overcome the confidence gap and aversion to risk? It’s a causal, necessary-and-sufficient relationship between the factors and the outcomes that I disbelieve.

          Consider Jill Pala, who sent 30 female exam-takers to the AP CS last year, thus making Tennessee the most female AP CS exam-taking state. Those girls didn’t have to take CS, yet they did. Consider Stanford, where 90% of undergraduates take CS (and Stanford is more than 10% female) without it being required. Consider the Georgia Tech Computational Media major, which is 30% female, even though they take the same core CS courses as our BS in CS. It is possible to get females into CS without requiring it.

          Mike Hewner did a dissertation on how students make academic decisions about CS. Surprisingly, he didn’t find a big connection to high school. Based on his theory, I believe if more undergraduate programs required CS as part of Gen Ed, we’d see many more women in IT. Here at Georgia Tech, we require CS of all majors. That doesn’t get us more CS majors, but it does get us many more women in a CS minor.

          If we could require real CS in schools, then I’d bet you’re right — we would get more women to discover CS and pursue it in College. The problem is that today, requiring CS would not get you real CS. You’d get Photoshop and CAD, because that’s as close to CS as we can get today if we required all schools to teach CS.

          • 26. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 26, 2014 at 1:03 pm

            Are you sure there isn’t a quantitative reasoning requirement at Stanford that CS satisfies, like it does at Harvard? (At Brown we have hundreds taking CS courses—fewer hundreds than at Stanford or Harvard—_but_ we also have absolutely no requirements that such a course would satisfy other than merely being university credit. This is something that makes comparison across universities very hard and some of these brags not as meaningful as they initially sound.)

          • 27. diana  |  April 26, 2014 at 6:39 pm

            Thank you for all your considered responses! I agree – I was thinking of real cs. I agree that the implementation would likely fall very short of the intent. And so then we agree. Although theoretically it might work, the reality is that it won’t because it will not be the right class. That explains the gulf in perspective I could not figure out.

        • 28. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  April 29, 2014 at 11:19 am

          I agree that the work on confidence gap and risk aversion is relevant to the discussion. I also find the work on incentive structures and motivation to be just as relevant, which was the point that I tried to make. There is plenty of work in economics, for instance, that shows (empirically) requiring participation reduces motivation. Similarly, offering incentives (e.g., paying students for work they were doing for free) can sometimes backfire and reduce participation.

          I absolutely agree that providing more exposure WILL overcome some of the confidence gap/risk aversion issues. I just find the evidence relating to incentive structures compelling enough to be wary of compulsory participation.


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