The most gender-balanced computing program in the USA: Computational Media at Georgia Tech

September 2, 2014 at 8:08 am 11 comments

Jennifer Whitlow here at the College of Computing at Georgia Tech just posted enrollment statistics about our undergraduate degrees, BS in Computer Science and BS in Computational Media (a joint degree between Computing and the School of Literature, Media, and Communications in our Ivan Allen College of the Liberal Arts).  (You can read student impressions about CM here.) We’re now at 1665 undergraduate majors, the largest ever.

This is a huge table — click on it to make it bigger.


The gender diversity in the BS in CS is improving significantly — from 9% in 2004, up to 19.91% this year.  But it’s the CM major that I find most intriguing.  It’s gone from the 25-30% female up to 45.32%.  At 45% female, I believe that it may be the most gender-balanced ABET-accredited computing undergraduate major at any US state university.  (Private schools with more control over admissions could be higher.)  That’s really something — dramatic and important.  CM graduates are getting good jobs (in the top starting salaries coming out of Georgia Tech undergrad, well into six figures). My son just graduated with a CM degree in May, and has now started a CS PhD — evidence that the degree is getting respect at CS departments too.

But there’s an interesting research question in here, too. CM is shrinking.

CM was at its largest in 2010 with 300 majors.  Today it has only 214 majors.  The number of women in CM has continued to increase every year until this last. It’s obvious what’s going on: we’re losing men.


Computational Media at Georgia Tech may be the only computing program in the country that is wondering, “Where did the men go?”  CM is clearly doing the right things to recruit, engage, and retain women.  Why are we losing men?  What is having a differential impact in terms of gender, that started about 2010?

One hypothesis is that it’s because of competition with the BS in CS, and in particular, with our threaded curriculum with threads available like Media and People.  But Threads started in 2005, same as the CM major, and CM grew while CS shrank from 2005-2011. While the faculty know from hiring statistics that CS and CM are neck-and-neck in terms of starting salaries and jobs offered, it’s not clear that the students know this.  It’s not clear why any competition with CS would suddenly rise in 2010, and then impact men more than women.

Another hypothesis is that CM is perceived as being easy — it’s “CS lite.”  You can see that perspective in the student comments I linked to earlier.  The hypothesis has two parts (a) that CM is perceived as easy, and (b) that men are more dissuaded by a degree being labeled easier than women.  Both are empirical questions, and I don’t know the answers to either. If we’re looking for changes in the CM program that might have triggered change, it is true that we recently made CM harder.  Two years ago, we found that CM students were struggling too much in graphics, so we added a new requirement: a challenging course in data structures and algorithms — the same one that the CS majors take.  CS and CM are virtually identical for the first two years.  Did making CM harder drive away men without driving away women?  Seems unlikely, but it’s possible.

Here’s yet another hypothesis: CM has become “feminized.”  See for some discussion of what happened in psychology as it became female-dominant, a UNESCO report on the feminization of education, or see a more detailed and academic consideration here:

When a field becomes feminized, it is perceived as “softer” and less-desirable by men.  CM enrollments started declining in 2011, after the percentage of females in CM passed 30%.

So here’s this wonderful result, that CM is nearly at gender-parity, with this strange additional observation — men are less interested in CM now.  We’d rather have gender balance and stable (or preferably, growing) numbers of both genders. The success of CM is the major story here, and we want to keep women in CM.  It’s an interesting question of where the men went.  Can we keep the successes of CM, and get men interested, too?

Matthew Guzdial, Jane Margolis, and Lecia Barker reviewed earlier drafts of this post and gave me very useful comments that I have incorporated.  My thanks to all of them!  I did not however use all of their comments, so hold me alone responsible for these comments.



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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  September 2, 2014 at 9:43 am

    I do worry a bit about the pendulum swinging too far and gaining women at the price of losing men. It seems as though historically that happens both ways at times. But it is probably too early to worry about it much.

  • 2. lizaloop  |  September 3, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Call me old fashioned if you want to but I do believe that there are statistical differences between the way men and women approach problems. When a field becomes “feminized” it may be that the statistically ‘female’ style has become prevalent and turns off some of the males.

    I saw this phenomenon when I taught BASIC through the Palo Alto Recreation Dept. in the early 1980s. The boys would race ahead pressing keys, sometimes randomly, until they crashed their computers and then raise their hands for help. The girls would carefully plan their approach, hover their finger above a key (the right one) and then ask me, “Is this right, teacher?” They all learned to code but their learning and experimental styles were different – not every boy and girl – statistically.

    I associate this risk-averse tendency to baby-carrying. The society as a whole will flounder if the females take so many risks that there is no next generation. Caution in men is not so critical to community survival. Caution in coding probably has no evolutionary effect but is simply an irrelevant artifact of ancestral selection. And guys still don’t want to be seen as sissies.

    Two paths forward occur to me. 1) Why not accept some gender separation in computing as long as the overall statistics continue to trend toward equal opportunity for women? 2) Address the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ styles directly (perhaps renaming them conservative and risk-taking) and identify circumstances under which each style yields more effective solutions. Then teach both styles to both/all genders.

    Whenever possible, viva la difference and don’t agonize over it!

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  September 3, 2014 at 4:40 pm

      What’s interesting is that Seymour Papert and Sherry Turkle studied student programmers using Logo and came to exactly the opposite conclusion: that female style is more bricolage and exploratory, and male style is more planful (see the Epistemlogical Pluralisms paper). Alan Blackwell followed up that work with an analysis of male and female end-user programmers (work with Jen Rode) arguing that Turkle and Papert got it wrong, and it’s really more about purpose than epistemology (see paper here).

      Given that there are so few women in computing overall, I do believe that it’s worth studying.

  • […] After my post claiming that Georgia Tech’s Computational Media program is the most gender-bala…, I had several people ask, “But that’s enrollment. Do the women graduate? Do they stick with the program?” My sense was that they did, but I asked our College data person, Elijah Cameron, and he sent me the below. Last year, BS in Computational Media graduates were over 40% female. Pretty good. […]

  • […]  They all have a depressing downward trend — except for one. Interdisciplinary degrees (like our Computational Media major) are the ones in which representation of women is increasing. (The slide they presented with this […]

  • […] phrase “CS lite” gets applied to our BS in Computational Media regularly. (See the blog post where I talk about that.)  Which is funny, because all but one of the CS classes that CM majors take are the same ones […]

  • […] Media degree program has been a Computing + Digital Media program, and is wildly successful (see example post here).  The challenge is to engage faculty from across campus in the […]

  • […] suspect that the problem described in this Guardian article is exactly what’s happening with our Computational Media degree program.  The BS in CM at Georgia Tech is now 47% female, while the BS in CS is only 20% female.  CM may […]

  • […] students during the same years CS has been on the rise. As a part of that decline, it appears to be losing men to computer science in particular, and perhaps falsely inflating the program’s claims to […]

  • […] students during a same years CS has been on a rise. As a partial of that decline, it appears to be losing men to mechanism scholarship in particular, and maybe secretly inflating a program’s claims to gender […]

  • […] proven wrong. There are many CS educational programs in the US with more than 20% female (like Computational Media at Georgia Tech). There are countries where CS is more than 50% female. How can Reges claim that 20% is the best […]


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