The by-gender vs by-discipline view of women in STEM from Valerie Barr #CSEdWeek

December 12, 2014 at 8:32 am 5 comments

Valerie Barr has written a Blog@CACM post (linked below) where she considers a by-gender view of women earning STEM or CS, vs the more traditional by-discipline view.  She’s computing the number of degrees who go to women in CS over all the degrees that women earn.  It’s an interesting argument and well-worth exploring.

My concern about this perspective is that it’s politically more complicated when arguing for resources to promote women in computing.  You only grow the by-gender number by convincing women not to go into a different field — it’s a share of all women on-campus/graduating.  That puts you in a tug of war with others on campus.  In a by-discipline perspective, you can improve your share by drawing more women in (or by the number of men decreasing, as seems to have happened in our CM degree, see here).

While the by-discipline view of STEM degrees is far from rosy, this by-gender view of the data facilitates a more accurate assessment of the situation for women in STEM, and we can build on this to understand the ways in which the by-discipline view can mislead. If there were parity between men and women in STEM disciplines then they would graduate with degrees in those fields at the same rate relative to the size of their respective pools. We see this only in Biology where the graduation rate is almost equal (7% of women’s 2012 degrees were earned in Biology versus 6.77% of men’s 2012 degrees). In all other STEM fields men earned degrees at a higher rate and women are far from parity.

via Women in STEM, Women in Computer Science: We’re Looking At It Incorrectly | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 12, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Valerie gave an excellent invited talk at Brown about this a few weeks ago. I strongly encourage readers to get her to stop by when she’s in the area, because some of this is really better discussed interactively (though the blog post does a great job of transcribing her talk).

  • 2. vbarr  |  December 12, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    I think there is a bit of a semantic difference in the way Mark poses it. He presents “convincing women not to go into a different field” versus “drawing more women in” to CS. Ultimately, in my view, this boils down to the same thing. If we draw more women into CS then they are not majoring in something else. Perhaps it’s an issue of time frame and pipeline. I am not proposing that we go out and twist the arms of current students and get them to change their major. I am suggesting that the by-gender view gives us another way of looking at the seriousness of the situation so that we factor that into our argument for resources and strategies.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  December 12, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      Georgia has one of the lowest rates of college attendance among the 50 states. We do actively recruit from high schools into CS. Yes, that’s a choice out of other majors, but for many students, it may be a choice between attending college or not. Barbara approached one Atlanta high school about teaching AP CS, and the principal told her, “I won’t teach AP CS. My kids aren’t ever going to college.” (This is the kind of phenomena that Kamau Bobb has written about.)

      I agree it’s an issue of framing. Other majors applaud us from getting more applicants into CS. Other majors are unhappy with us when we talk about our numbers in comparison with theirs.

  • […] Barr has great insights into computing education, especially with regards to diversity (e.g., see the blog post last CS Ed Week about alternative ways to view data about diversity in computing).  I like what she has to say in her most recent Blog@CACM blog post, but I think the title is […]

  • […] of 88. (Thanks to John Impagliazzo for passing on word on the SIGCSE-members list.)  Valerie Barr, who has been mentioned several times in this blog, was just named the first Jean E. Sammet chair of computer science at Mount Holyoke.  I never met […]


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