CS educators listen to authority more than evidence: Time to move on

August 6, 2018 at 7:00 am 9 comments

My CACM Blog post for July starts from Stuart Reges’ inflammatory blog post in June “Why Women Don’t Code.”  I use his post and other writing as a foil to critique how we make arguments in computing education.  They tend to be arguments from authority, not from evidence.

Why is that? Why do CS educators use evidence and research less than (as quoted in the CACM post) Physics educators?  Is it because of the youth of the field, so when we grow up we’ll think more about research on how to teach well?  Is it because of the economics of the field?  Getting a CS background is so lucrative that students are desperate to succeed in the classes. We don’t have to teach well — student motivation will make up for where our teaching lacks. Or is it something else — is it something about CS in its nature that leads to opposition to using evidence and research when making educational decisions?

In June, Stuart Reges, principal lecturer in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, published a blog post Why Women Don’t Code that led to several articles and blog posts in response (e.g., Seattle Times and GeekWire). Reges argues that women are simply never going to enter computing at significant numbers, and 20% is about all that we’re ever going to get.

Our community must face the difficult truth that we aren’t likely to make further progress in attracting women to computer science. Women can code, but often they don’t want to. We will never reach gender parity. You can shame and fire all of the Damores you find, but that won’t change the underlying reality.

It’s time for everyone to be honest, and my honest view is that having 20 percent women in tech is probably the best we are likely to achieve. Accepting that idea doesn’t mean that women should feel unwelcome. Recognizing that women will be in the minority makes me even more appreciative of the women who choose to join us.

Hank Levy, Director of the U-W CSE School, wrote a great statement in response (see here). Levy disagrees with Reges’s conclusions, but supports Reges’s right to make his argument. Levy puts the current gender ratio in computer science in context by comparing to other disciplines.

I was most struck by the 20% claim. That’s easily 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 that we can possibly do?

Here’s something important about Stuart Reges that people outside of CS education might not know — he’s a rockstar. He packs the house when he speaks at education conferences. He publishes regularly in the field. He has written a popular book on how to teach Java in introductory computer science (see Building Java Programs). Students love him, and teachers want to be like him. When Stuart Reges speaks, CS educators listen.

In this post, I want to step back and consider how Reges is making his argument, because it says something about how we make decisions in computing education. I am going to characterize the argument style in computing education as argument from authority which Wikipedia describes as “a claimed authority’s support is used as evidence for an argument’s conclusion.” We need to recognize the form before we can move beyond it.

Click here to read the rest of the CACM Blog Post.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Monica McGill  |  August 6, 2018 at 8:32 am

    Regardless of what he believes to be his own support of women, his words devalue our current and future contributions to the field while at the same time promoting the idea that the women who ARE in the field are anomalies–freaks of nature, going against the “natural” order. And he himself supports the freaks, so what a wonderful man he must be and we should thank him!

    Historically, we can look at how these same exact arguments were made against women going into law, science, business, and a myriad of other fields over the past century. But again, that’s evidence. Why look at that?

    I hate to use the term “mansplaining” because I personally know several women who do it as well–but in this case, yet another man explaining why women like me are or are not in the field is irresponsible, cringe-worthy, and dumb AF. Because women who choose this field are not anomalies or freaks of nature–many of us just enjoy what we do and we know that enjoying it has nothing to do with gender. But when the big booming male authority is proclaiming otherwise, it inhibits our ability to get that message out and make it stick.

  • 2. Francisco  |  August 7, 2018 at 12:23 am

    Thank you Mark for your post. I’m not sure why he would make this statement. It is just wrong for him to say it, as you mentioned, there are no basis for it.

    You are correct the numbers are higher in some instances. I know he mentioned tech. However, one point that had me confused when I attended SIGCSE this year was the reporting of numbers of diversity groups, including women. One school said that their number for Women in Computing was close to 40%. However, when I asked what was the percentage of women in CS, they said it was around the national average (14-18%).

    While other degrees around CS (e.g., HCI) are extremely important, when it comes to the core computing degree (for writing code) — which is CS — the numbers in most schools that I have asked remains around 14-18%, with some lower and with some exception of high numbers. My point is that combining the numbers with CS, sometimes may make some people believe that we are doing great with women in CS, which we are still way below of what we could hope. Thanks for your post!

  • 3. gflint  |  August 7, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    I am a high school CS teacher. I have been teaching HS CS off and on since 1982. I do not deliberately follow the women in CS research, I just have many years of observation. Over the years maybe one in ten, at best, of my CS students were girls. This is not just for programming classes but includes game making classes, college prep classes and some general hardware classes. The shortage of girls is consistent. This is pure observation.

    Here is another observation from years of experience. I attend as many CS professional development events as I can find in decent driving range. This is sometimes a couple summers in a row and other times it will be 5 years between events. Something I have noticed at all these events is the number of women teachers present is always equal to or greater than the number of men. The number of women qualified to teach HS CS is increasing dramatically. I think this trend will change that 20% (if true) quicker than any deliberate attempt to get girls into CS.

  • 4. Joseph Wright  |  August 14, 2018 at 8:12 am

    I don’t think it was right to put a 20% figure on this, it would be interesting to find Stuart’s reasoning for this and you are right to criticise it. However, it also seems to be a very minor point in his article. The main thrust being: given a free choice, women will on average choose to study CS less than men do. Not that they do worse, but that they choose to study other things. The research Stuart links to supports this, and this I imagine is the evidence base for his 20% (though why 20% is still unclear). The paper that needs tackling with respect to STEM and CS is this one: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797617741719?journalCode=pssa

    Note, I consider the idea of a free choice as impossible, but we have something closer to this in western democracies than elsewhere.

    • 5. Francisco  |  August 14, 2018 at 10:53 am

      Joseph, if women choose CS less than men do, then it is important to find out why. But you also need to see that this wasn’t always the case. In the early 80’s, we had more than 35% women in the field. Therefore, there seem other factors. When Stuart makes such claim, the rest looses credibility.

      • 6. Joseph Wright  |  August 14, 2018 at 12:49 pm

        I’m not arguing that a more equitable past existed, nor that a more equitable future might exist. The why is speculated in the paper I linked and several others that Stuart links. My point is not to get tied up on the 20% figure, but look at and critique the main claim that (my words) “given a free choice, women will on average choose to study CS less than men do”. This involves looking at the original research that Stuart is basing his claim on. He is not just appealing to authority here.

        No doubt there are other factors at play here, but if we only ever listen to the set of evidence that we find agreeable then we may be blind to the full truth.

        • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  August 15, 2018 at 3:27 am

          Joseph, let’s consider two hypotheses for why women are not pursuing careers in technology — these are hypotheses that are actively being explored in empirical research and in design of interventions.

          (1) Women aren’t discovering that they like code because they don’t get access to opportunities to learn coding. If they don’t get to try coding, they don’t get to discover that they like it. Several studies show that CS classes in schools are predominantly male (e.g., across the entire country of England). Efforts like “Girls Who Code” aim to improve access. Stuart doesn’t mention access in his essay.

          (2) Women who enter computing (classes or industry) leave more quickly after entering than men do (e.g., as seen in bootcamp data). If we retained more, we would increase female percentage of the field. If women enter the field, one might presume that they do want to code. Perhaps it is possible to change tech culture to retain women more. This hypothesis does not presume discrimination, or that such changes would make men less comfortable. It simply considers the possibility that we might improve retention. Stuart doesn’t mention retention or retaining women in his essay.

          So, what does it mean that two common hypotheses are not considered by Stuart? Reading his essay alone, without reading more into it, he tells us that 20% is the best we can do by “my honest opinion.” There’s a presumption that nothing more can be done than what he has considered, and that no one might invent something that he has not invented. That is argument by authority.

  • 8. Francisco  |  August 14, 2018 at 11:19 am

    Correction: there seem to be other factors at play.

  • […] and Georgia Tech alumna) has written a thoughtful piece in response to the Stuart Reges blog post (which I talked about here), where she tells her own stories and reframes the […]


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