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.