Randall Stross of the New York Times reports about the declining number of women in computer science. The article quotes from a new book “Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming,” by Justine Cassell, where she writes “The girls game movement failed to dislodge the sense among both boys and girls that computers were ‘boys’ toys’ and that true girls didn’t play with computers.” I have always failed to see a causal link between gaming and computer science education, although I had hoped to be proven wrong by the serious efforts to create games that would appeal to girls.

The NYT article also includes a graphic from an oft-cited UCLA survey about what entering college students list as a probable major.

While that trend is interesting, I find that the data about the number of degrees awarded in various fields is more significant. In the graph below, you can see that there has been a steady decline in women receiving undergraduate degrees in computer science since the peak in the mid 80s at almost 40%, while overall the number of women receiving degrees in technical fields and in all fields is increasing.


[While I’ve seen this graph many times before, I found this version in a very excellent article by Jennifer Jennings]

I was in high school in the mid-80s. At the time most people believed that you had to learn how to program a computer to be able to use these emerging tools in the future. I then went to college and studied computer science (as a practical balance for my Visual Arts degree, not realizing that I would grow to love software engineering). I remember more than one woman who told me that her father had encouraged her to study computer science, even though he was not in the field or even an engineering or scientific field. It seemed similar to your parents saying you should become a doctor because they think it’ll ensure a good future for you. I don’t think that most people today (outside the industry) believe there is any job security in the field. I also think the basic skills are not intrinsically valued, like studying history, literature or math. Of course, I disagree on both points.

A computer science degree does not just teach you to code in a specific programming language that may be obsolete in ten years. You learn a specific way of thinking: problem solving, debugging, patterns of solutions to technical problems. This way of thinking makes you more adept with modern tools and can be applied in any job you might have in the future. There are also a wide array of jobs that you will then be qualified for from standard IT and software development to scientific research to web publishing.

I believe that every child should have a semester or two of learning a programming language and that every college freshman should be encouraged to take a computer science course that teaches practical software engineering as well as some of the more abstract concepts. These basic skills can then be applied to problem solving for research, whether it be journalism, chemistry or just to learn more about the world (like Jon Udell’s (like Jon Udell’s question about us oil imports).

Many thanks to my friend ptw who sent me this article and regularly alerts me to similar ones. I’ve always been puzzled and frustrated about the minority of women in my chosen field, while at the same time understanding intuitively that it make sense that this is so.

Here’s my take on the problem and what we should do about it. Note: this is not a problem that just affects women or just affects people in the field. It affects everyone. You want the software you use written by people who are representative of the general population; otherwise, I believe, it will never really work well for the general population.

1) More *people* should study computer science. Programming is a skill that has ever-growing uses in the information age (see above).

2) Computer Science has a marketing problem. (This is a quote from a Grace Hopper talk. I’m sorry I don’t have the reference.)
   2a) see #1 above
   2b) the geek image really needs to be reclaimed in a positive light
   2c) women in computer history need be be recognized (e.g. the eniac programmers and the like)
   2d) Computer Science curriculum should include real-world applications, not just prepare folks to be computer science professors. Working in the industry offers significantly different challenges than academic research which tends to be pretty abstract. (an insight from a conversation with Oliver Steel)

3) Sexist behavior needs to be eliminated. This is even more important if you are a man. Don’t let those comment slide. If there is only one woman in the room, see if you can make sure she is heard as much as the guys. But don’t overdo it, being heard *because* you are a woman is almost as bad as not being heard because you are a woman. Make it so everyone feels welcome to participate.

4) Sexual behavior needs to stay out of the office. I consider this completely distinct from sexism. Both women and men enjoy porn, and many women are not offended (and are sometimes entertained) by frank discussions or jokes of a sexual nature. However, when you are the only woman in the room a comment or joke that would be generic to another man can be predatory or simply a come-on. Suddenly instead of being amongst colleagues, you are marked as subordinate, as an object, or simply as different. It’s no fun and no one wants to be in a position where deflecting such situations is needed on a regular basis.

What do you think?