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2014 September 21

Narrowing the gender gap in CS

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:41
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Today’s post collects a few drafts of pointers to articles about narrowing the gender gap in computational fields.  The first article is from CACM,  Computing’s Narrow Focus May Hinder Women’s Participation | News | Communications of the ACM:

In her position as a professor of computer science at Union College, Barr found contextualizing computer science classes led to an increase in female enrollment. “We said, ‘let’s show them that computer science can be useful by giving themes to the introductory CS courses, so students can see their relevance,’” she said. “For us, it’s been enormously successful. Ten years ago we taught the introductory course to 29 students, and 14% of them were women. This year there were over 200 students, and 39% of them were women.” Beyond college, Barr said, she’d also like to see “a bigger funnel into the corporate world and the tech industry, with people coming from many other majors. It doesn’t have to be just CS majors.”

The suggestion there is that providing interesting applications in the intro courses helps retain student interest, particularly among female students.  The  article seems to have struck a chord with some female computer scientists.  Here, for example, is a response from Katrin Becker’s blog:

A big part of what attracted me to computer science was what I could do with what I was learning. That, and that programming is largely about lists, organizing, and puzzles—all things that women often find appealing.

Personally, I think that well-designed intro courses that excite students about the possibilities of the field would serve to retain more men as well as more women, but it is certainly possible that the effect is stronger for some groups of students than for others.  Exactly what applications are chosen may make a difference also—picking applications that fit male stereotypes (car engine controllers and missile guidance systems?) may even be counter-productive in narrowing the gender gap.

Another possible explanation for why women make up such a small part of engineering and the “hard” sciences comes from an article in The Washington Post,  Catherine Rampell: Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later – The Washington Post:

A message to the nation’s women: Stop trying to be straight-A students.

No, not because you might intimidate easily emasculated future husbands. Because, by focusing so much on grades, you might be limiting your earning and learning potential.

The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s. Science departments grade, on a four-point scale, an average of 0.4 points lower than humanities departments, according to a 2010 analysis of national grading data by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. And two new research studies suggest that women might be abandoning these lucrative disciplines precisely because they’re terrified of getting B’s.

The observation is that women are more deterred from entering a field by getting low grades than men are—they found that women who got Bs and Cs in their intro courses changed majors to ones that graded more leniently, while men with low grades continued slogging along in their initially chosen major.  The data was from economics, not engineering, departments, and I don’t know whether the same behaviors apply. The article cites another study that suggests that the same behavior occurs in STEM fields:

Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.

The suggested action is to advise women not to be intimidated by B grades.  I don’t know whether that has been attempted anywhere, but I have my doubts that just telling people not to be afraid of Bs is really going to change their strategies for maintaining their self images.  Catherine Rampell also makes a rather careless mistake in saying

Remember, on net, many more women enter college intending to major in STEM or economics than exit with a degree in those fields. If women were changing their majors because they discovered new intellectual appetites, you’d expect to see greater flows into STEM fields, too.

The mistake is in assuming that switching to and from STEM fields is equally easy.  In fact, the much larger set of required course and longer prerequisite chains make it much easier to switch out of STEM fields than into them.  Freshmen are advised to prepare for the most restrictive major they are interested in to keep their options open.  What seems to be happening is that women bail out of the tough majors at a higher level of performance than men do.

Of course, it is a mistake to think of “STEM” as monolithic entity. From The Shriver Report – 10 Reasons Why America Needs 10,000 More Girls in Computer Science:

2. Girls Are Already Making the Grade in Bio (Science)

Using AP test-taking as a measure of pipeline illustrates the true nature of STEM participation for girls. Female test-takers exceed or are close to parity with males in psychology, calculus, biology, and chemistry, but only account for 18 percent of AP computer science test takers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women already make up nearly 60 percent of degree recipients in biology, a whopping 85 percent in health professions, and around 50 percent in social sciences. In fact, 20 times as many girls took the AP biology test, as did AP computer science. The majority of women in ’STEM’ fields choose life sciences, so simply saying we need to increase the number of women in STEM is a mistake. Instead, we need to narrow the conversation to focus on computing and IT fields, where the shortfall is the largest.

Not only are women already over-represented in biology at the BS level, but biology has been over-producing PhDs for a couple of decades relative to the demand, so that jobs in biology research are very difficult to get and generally pay substantially less then other science and engineering fields.  There are some very high paying jobs in biomedical research, but the demand for them far exceeds the supply—the “postdoc holding tank” in biology is enormous.

I don’t have any action items coming out of these articles—I’ve already put together a freshman design course for the bioengineering majors that did hands-on, applied work providing applications for some low-level computer programming.  While I’ll continue to try to improve that course, there aren’t many lower-division courses taught by our department for majors (the others are bioethics and a no-prereq intro to biotechnology, both of which are dominated by non-majors).  The Baskin School of Engineering has just created a Computational Media department, which will take over the game design program (a predominantly male program) from CS, but which is expected to create some new computational media courses.  we’ll have to see whether these have any effect on the number of women in computational fields at our university.


  1. Great post, but your very last paragraph really caught my eye. Y’all just created a computational media department?!? I can’t find it on the Web yet. Brand new?

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2014 September 21 @ 16:49 | Reply

    • I quote our interim dean in a memo dated 2014 Aug 28: “NEW COMPUTATIONAL MEDIA DEPARTMENT

      The establishment of a new Computational Media (CM) Department has been approved by EVC Galloway, effective immediately. This new department will focus on how computation serves as an expressive medium, combining humanities and arts disciplines and research approaches with computing. The CM Department will oversee the existing Computer Science: Computer Game Design B.S. program, as well as any new academic programs that may be approved in the future.

      I would like to express my gratitude to EVC Galloway, the Committee on Educational Policy, the Committee on Planning and Budget, and the Graduate Council for their thorough review and insightful comments on the program proposal. I join EVC Galloway in wishing the CM department faculty best wishes for success!”

      I don’t think that the paperwork to move faculty into the new department has happened yet and the web pages certainly have not been created. I know that when I moved from Computer Engineering as a founding member of the Biomolecular Engineering Department it took many months for the change of department—the paperwork was as bad as for a new hire (since then the paperwork for new hires has grown about 3×, but I don’t know what has happened with inter-department transfers).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 September 21 @ 19:44 | Reply

  2. I think your explanation #2 is a very important factor. However, I think the biggest problem is the pipeline. From what I see, we are retaining our female students at pretty much the same rate as the male students, but we have so few female freshmen choosing the CS major that our numbers are very low. I think the gaming focus at the high school level, and particularly in the myriad afterschool programs that have popped up everywhere, really discourage girls. My son did one of those programs this summer, and out of about 100 kids, there was one girls. And it wasn’t surprising – the program was unbelievably boy-focused. They advertised their extensive collection of games as something the kids could do on their break times (how about socializing, or playing outside instead), and their advertising materials just showed pictures of middle school boys. Girls see this, and realize that computing is not for them.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2014 September 22 @ 05:31 | Reply

  3. When I was an undergraduate (last half of the ’50s) there were two (count ’em, two) female students in the entire college of engineering. I would guess that was about 1/2 percent.

    When I started teaching ChE in 1970, around 10 to 15 percent of the students in my classes were female.

    When I retired 10 years ago, typically 1/3 of the class was female – sometimes higher.

    So some things have improved. However, one obvious problem was that our faculty was entirely male. In the ’80s we tried desperately to hire women faculty. So did everybody else. They just weren’t available. Since I’ve retired, that’s improved a bit, but not nearly enough.

    As an aside, my daughter has a MS in biology from a large university. She was able to find work as a database manager in a brokerage house.

    Comment by John Hassler — 2014 September 22 @ 15:28 | Reply

  4. To #3, what you don’t realize is that women in CS peaked around 1980, at somewhere between 35% to 40%, and then plummeted to today’s levels. In my program, we have between 10% to 15% women. So we aren’t really advancing.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2014 September 22 @ 18:44 | Reply

    • I back Bonnie up on this—things looked on their way to equity in the early 1980s, but have declined since then in computational fields and several other engineering fields, while other fields (like biology) have become majority female.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 September 22 @ 19:17 | Reply

      • I don’t know about CS of course, but when I retired, it was still holding steady in ChE.

        The 80s were very difficult for female ChEs. When I started teaching, one of the senior professors told me that a woman could never be a ‘real’ engineer. I never saw him display any overt prejudice, but I’m sure it showed through. Once they graduated, many of our women were harassed and intimidated on their jobs. (Almost all ChE graduates go directly into industry.) There is much less of this, now, although male chauvinism still exists. Perhaps because they had to fight to hard to “get in,” they aren’t dropping out so much.

        In any case, my experience doesn’t appear to be relevant to CS.

        Comment by John Hassler — 2014 September 22 @ 20:25 | Reply

  5. I looked at and noted the following bullet:

    a variety of ways to get into computing (media computation, robotics, artificial intelligence, management of “big data”, and game development)

    so they clearly offer a number of differently themed intro classes. It is also clear that there are art programs with actual programming (e.g. programming dynamic sculpture) rather than just using existing tools to create art.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2014 September 22 @ 20:09 | Reply

  6. This comment might not make me the most popular person around, but this is my honest opinion based on my experiences.
    I am what you might consider a high-achieving woman in a physical science STEM field. I have a BS in theoretical physics and a PhD in an engineering discipline, and am a full professor at a large research university in the US,
    where I have been teaching physics-heavy engineering courses for 10 years now. I also have kids in the K-12 school system.

    If I were a young girl going into college now, I do not see myself studying physics at all. Or most engineering, CS, or math. I might go into chemistry or likely bio. Why? The labs are gorgeous and the people are less douchey.

    I was always a high achiever (International Physics Olympiad, very high GPAs throughout), but I was never particularly nerdy (I played sports, I dated in high school and college).
    Where I grew up in Europe, there was not this prevalent geek culture I see in the US. Even smart kids had to bathe and be able to maintain conversation. I can tell you this with certainty, because I taught physics in a high school for gifted kids for several years before coming to the US. Those kids were are smart as anyone, but they did not have the stereotypical geek attitude that is so prevalent in science and engineering classrooms in the US.

    I can imagine myself at 18, coming to a physics or engineering classroom; it’s nerd-a-palooza in the worst case, and it is scary.
    There are a lot of smart, but very unpleasant young men who go around rubbing it in everyone’s face how superior they are to everyone else because of some technical minutiae.
    Girls like me, who are halfway socially adjusted, will not want stay in that climate, and they will switch to somewhere less abrasive because they can. It has nothing to do with technical aptitude.

    Comment by xykademiqz — 2014 October 7 @ 07:56 | Reply

    • I agree with you that college students and professionals should be expected to bathe regularly (daily in most parts of the US) and that bragging about their abilities is impolite.

      But you seem to be holding students to a higher standard, expecting them to be able to make small talk, not just technical conversation. It seems that like many Americans, you prefer extraverts to introverts. This is an extremely strong prejudice in American school systems, and many introverts end up in technical fields, because these are often the only fields where they are accepted socially.

      I have routine dealings with faculty and students in engineering and computational fields and in bio and chem fields. I have not seen a significant difference in the number of arrogant or socially inept people in these different fields. (There is a slightly higher incidence of unbathed people in fields dominated by people who play a lot of on-line games, but it seems to be associated more with the game playing than the field as a whole.) If anything the “rubbing it in everyone’s face how superior they are” is strongest in biomedical fields, which also have the highest rates of academic dishonesty.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 October 7 @ 13:51 | Reply

      • I don’t expect students to be masterful with small talk, rather to be somewhat capable of interacting with their peers, as appropriate to their age. They way college kids interact with each other is different from how us middle-aged folks do, or even the way we did when we were kids. Being that I have male children and have spent years interacting with socially anxious male students through teaching, I know most are perfectly nice guys who just need time to relax, which is best achieved by being relaxed yourself and treating them with patience, ignoring the fact that they are visibly anxious. But the 18-year-old me would have been extremely uncomfortable and fled many of these interactions.

        I don’t believe socially adjusted is the same as extroverted, or socially anxious/awkward is the same as introverted.
        For instance, my husband is a socially well-adjusted introvert (also an avid gamer with impeccable hygiene). He doesn’t like to talk and he doesn’t crave interactions with people, be he is but is neither shy not anxious around them,
        and can carry a conversation with anyone. I am probably more extroverted than him, but it’s mostly learned, and I am nowhere near the typical over-the-top extrovert.

        A lot of young men in technical fields appear to be very uncomfortable around women and can come across as extremely unpleasant (the jerky showing off is one example probably stemming from this awkwardness).
        When there are many such guys around and you are the only or one of the very few girls, and you are 18 and smart and could do any number of things with your life, you will consider dropping those classes.
        I know this is what I would have done at 18. And I agree that many biomedical fields are a landmine when it comes to the level of doing research professionally. But the vibes in the undergraduate classroom are probably more appealing from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl.

        (Sorry for the tangent.)

        Comment by xykademiqz — 2014 October 7 @ 14:33 | Reply

        • I agree that shyness and introversion are not the same thing. (I am myself a not-very-shy introvert.) I also agree that “a lot of young men in technical fields appear to be very uncomfortable around women”—I was certainly very awkward and socially inept until my late 20s, and even now as I approach 60 I’m not socially adroit. I don’t see the boys in bio classes as any more socially well-adapted than boys in CS classes, but the presence of large numbers of women changes the dynamics of the classroom, so that there is less of the embarrassing behavior. So if “the vibes in the undergraduate classroom are probably more appealing from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl”, I think it is primarily due to the percentage of women in the classes, rather than to a difference in the who the men are. Groups that are predominantly young males often exhibit ridiculous behavior, but the best solution is often to make the groups more nearly gender balanced.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 October 9 @ 20:46 | Reply

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