It is good to read about progress from some colleges in creating gender balance in computer science, since the overall trend has been a steady downward curve in the number of female cs grads. [see NYT article “Computer Science Takes Steps to Bring Women to the Fold” — thanks Tucker!]

“Moving emphasis away from programming proficiency was a key to the success of programs Dr. Blum and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon instituted to draw more women into computer science.” The point is not that standards are being lowered, but rather a change in focus from drawing only those who already know how to program vs. an emphasis on “high overall achievement and broad interests, diverse perspectives and whether applicants seem to have potential to be future leaders.”

Other tactics that are working…
* materials for tell high school students about computer science, that will be provided to teachers of math, science and English because girls have already opted out by then (Dr. Lazowska and Dr. Blum)
* a Web page for prospective students showing what computer science is for: “everything from designing prosthetics to devising new ways to fight forest fires” and deliberately featuring all women in the photographs (University of Washington)
* a college group called Women in Computer Science runs a program which brings ninth-grade girls from nearby schools to the university campus for five weeks each summer. It creates a “in a positive and encouraging environment.” for learning both concrete computer skills and abstract computer science concepts (Brown University, Artemis Project)

This discussion reminds me of Shirley Malcom’s declaration at Grace Hopper 2004 that computer science has a marketing problem, referencing the well-known Edsger Dijkstra quote: “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” If girls got the picture that computers aren’t about programming, but that it is a powerful way to do accomplish incredible things, then maybe we would have more women getting CS degrees and appearing in software industry.

I’ve written about this before. Perhaps I should not be surprised that there are so few women in the field, since what I most love about it is not easily seen from the outside. Oliver Steele once summed it up well in conversation, when he said that in college they teach how to be a computer scientist, learning to be a software engineer is a side-effect. It is perhaps unavoidable that university classes are all taught by professors who are interested in computer science as an end unto itself, rather than as a means to an end — you need to do computer science research to qualify. Most of us who are practicing programmers do it for fundamentally different reasons. Sure, programming is fun, but that’s not the point. The point is to change the world in some small or large way, to have an impact on something or someone outside of the machine.

I would love to hear about more tactics that are making a difference … what else is going on? do you know someone who is making a difference? are you? if you are a woman in CS, what made a difference for you?

What do you think?