11
$\begingroup$

It’s no secret that despite the phenomenal rise in computing over the last 50 years, women are still not engaging with computer science at the same rate as men.

Girls are less likely to enroll in introductory computer science courses in school and the number of females studying computer science is near an all-time low. Therefore, the vast majority of computer science jobs will be pursued and filled by men.

According to Google's Diversity Gaps in Computer Science report of 2016:,

Twice as many male students (34%) as female students (16%) saying they are “very interested” in learning CS in the future, and nearly twice as many female students (24%) as male students (13%) saying they are “not at all interested.”

Diversity Gaps: How interested are you in learning computer science in the future?

Since I am very passionate about helping girls and women take an interest in computer science I would like to know the main ideas and theories about what keeps them back from learning it to eventually come up with a solution.

$\endgroup$
12
$\begingroup$

If you're just looking for the key points on how you can begin to solve the problem, you need only read the second section, but the first section provides valuable context on what the actual problem is and the root causes.

Why are so few girls interested in Computer Science?

There is an issue, not limited to CS, but throughout STEM fields (particularly Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science, according to recent examination statistics) with gender balance, where women are extremely underrepresented. In 2014, only about 10% of entrants for the Computing A-Level were female.

Miura (1987) suggests that women's self-efficacy regarding computing is lower, which leads to lower interest in the field and lower uptake at undergraduate level.

Fisher, Margolis & Miller (1997) also propose that women have less previous experience than men in the field—many have already started to self-teach or practice at home, whereas this is less true for women in the study. They also state that, from their interviews, women seemed to appreciate computing more as they went through their studies, whereas many of the men in the study showed a keen interest as soon as they were introduced to computing.

Fisher & Margolis (2002) discuss the "Geek Mythology"—the stereotypical male computer scientist—and its effect on women:

While the stereotype of the computer science student as someone who is myopically focused on computing is rejected by many male and female students, women report more distress and are more affected by the perceived difference between themselves and their peers. One-third of the male students we’ve interviewed say they differ from the stereotype, that they have a broader range of interests than just computing. But twice as many women (more than two-thirds of those we interviewed) feel different from the stereotype. And 20 percent of the women we interviewed question whether they belong in computer science because they feel they do not share the same intensity in focus and interest that they see in their male peers.

How can this be changed?

Benbow & Vivyan point to a pedagogical solution which may benefit:

Pedagogical interactions are an important factor in determining whether students feel included or excluded in a particular educational field, and our findings in this regard confirm results from previous studies. Most significantly, students across our sample reported that working with real-world problems, as well as active instructor encouragement in light of student questions and peer collaboration, made them feel more comfortable and more confident as computer science majors—often despite brogammer-oriented field norms.

There are many groups aiming to change the culture around computing, such as Django Girls, an organisiation running free, one-day courses for girls and women interested in web development with HTML, CSS and Python. Events like this would seem to satisfy the goals of a supporting group of instructors, and a real-world problem to solve, which favours participation from women.

As a teacher, even changing the classroom environment may help to favour women and girls. Cheryan, Davies, Plaut & Steele (2009) state:

People can make decisions to join a group based solely on exposure to that group’s physical environment. Four studies demonstrate that the gender difference in interest in computer science is influenced by exposure to environments associated with computer scientists. In Study 1, simply changing the objects in a computer science classroom from those considered stereotypical of computer science (e.g., Star Trek poster, video games) to objects not considered stereotypical of computer science (e.g., nature poster, phone books) was sufficient to boost female undergraduates’ interest in computer science to the level of their male peers.

The solution to this problem might not be one big change; rather, lots of little changes might improve participation from girls and women in CS classes.

Trying to create real-world scenarios, in a balanced classroom environment may bring some more success, but it's often hard to know if the solutions you try actually have any effect. Ensuring the culture of the class doesn't become too male-oriented might also help to avoid bias against women in the demographics.

I'd be very interested to hear anyone's experiences with applying methods like this, and whether they did seem to make a perceptible difference.

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

I have been involved with teaching coding to students aged 8+ in Ireland for the past few years. Gender balance is something we've thought about plenty, but (as other commenters have noted) there doesn't seem to be a silver bullet, or anything close to it.

Where we have managed to shift our numbers somewhat it's been by heavily over-representing girls in our advertising for classes (no prizes for originality there...) and, more dramatically, by just going into all-girls schools and running classes there.

(FWIW: classes went from 16% female to 21% female when we made more of a point of advertising with lots of girls in our pictures (that excludes classes run in single sex schools - so just the public, mixed classes). On <300 students, and with only those two data points, we can't infer much, but it moved in the right direction at least).

The more interesting bit for me has been that there isn't a dramatic difference in interest levels in the subject once you actually get the girls into classes. This could be seen as selection bias in our "public facing" classes, where anyone can sign their kids up (maybe we only get the girls who are really enthusiastic already?) but it holds up in schools where we run after-school activities that attract similar ~50% participation in both the boys and girls schools where we've run classes. Boys don't like coding more than girls, they just (for some reason) actually do it more.

We've also noticed that gender balance seems to get worse as kids get older, so the key does seem to be getting them at a younger age. Getting the parents on board is crucial too - especially when it comes to the younger groups, I can't make sense of the imbalance except to say that it comes down to parents choosing "gender appropriate" hobbies/activities for their kids.

And of course, the probably obvious point: it's a cycle, currently vicious but could become virtuous in time if enough women can be persuaded into the career.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

I've heard that making the introduction to computers as more hands-on and practical is better for engaging girls than simply sitting at a keyboard and coding. One relevant entry point might be the cheap modern 3D printers (made possible by a $5 control board), which have all sorts of non-software applications - and maybe generate less bias than robots.

In this sense, working with microcontrollers and focusing on embedded applications should be beneficial. There is also scope to pull in a wider range of applications in this way (health, environmental monitoring, other sciences, education) which makes the final employment benefit of taking a Computer Science course easier to grasp.

I believe girls are more conscious of making longer-term career plans, so showing them the diversity of roles where Computer Science is applicable will also help. The chain from remote data collection through to data analytics (and the underlying stack) is massive.

I'm not sure if there is much evidence to support the value of an mcu approach yet (some, for sure, but I think it's early).

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree completely with the first sentence. Our intro CS course is designed around real-world labs with lab reports. In our department discussions we often cite research suggesting this is better for retention for women and minorities, and has better learning outcomes for all students. If you want, I can try to dig up references. In my experience, we retain more women from CS 1 to CS 2 every semester. We're up to 50-50 in CS 2 (of course, the university is 60% women, so we have more work to do). $\endgroup$ – David White Jun 3 '17 at 7:07
  • $\begingroup$ References would be useful, I think - This approach is a diversion from the traditional, more abstract approach (making solutions before problems if you like - or add your own answer if you'd prefer. $\endgroup$ – Sean Houlihane Jun 3 '17 at 11:58
  • $\begingroup$ @nocomprende, not having a plan is fine. I mentored a couple of pre-uni students, both were concerned to understand career progression, project structures, etc. Told them plans always change... $\endgroup$ – Sean Houlihane Jun 15 '17 at 11:55
1
$\begingroup$

The problem of young women (girls) and other groups (minorities) being under-represented in certain educational fields and professions is a deep problem with only complex solutions. There is no magic solution that will make it right.

First some data points.

According to the Guardian, the problem seems to be somewhat localized to the US, Britain, and Canada . There is something about the educational and social systems in these countries that seems to drive some people away.

In the early years of education, young girls outperform boys by a large margin. There is even a worry that the educational system disadvantages boys up to a certain age.

In the US, at least, one of the influences is that elementary teachers are predominantly women, giving young girls positive role models. Many young females want to be teachers since they see how important teachers are in their own lives.

Some solutions are pretty rotten (See the Guardian article, above). I read there that you should emphasize "cooking" as embodying both science and, well..., something.

One possibility that helps explain the discrepancy among high school students is the conflict between smart and cool. For young kids these are aligned - teachers and parents give a lot of positive feedback for being smart to youngsters. But at some point, kids start to differentiate their personalities from others, especially teachers and parents. In some groups smart != cool and since students of that age are spending more time with peers, cool always wins. Boys want to be seen as cool both by other boys and by girls. The same is true for girls. Being smart takes second place. For the overly geeky, poorly socialized, boys it matter less as they won't be seen as cool in general, but only by other geeky guys.

Toward solutions

From the above, I suggest two approaches to the problem.

The first is to provide mentors to young women and members of minorities. These mentors should, if at all possible, be similar to the students. Female, Black, Hispanic, Introverted, Poor, whatever. The mentors need to provide both some of the instruction but serve as role-models primarily. Can one or two of your female students visit a female professional at work (Take a student to work day)? Make this mentorship part of your educational process. A group of mentors can also provide a boost to the students later in life if you can make the contacts permanent.

The second approach is to make smart = cool again. My personal approach to this is to emphasize group work in courses over individual work. Make learning a social process, not just an individual one. Let students work together with peers who share characteristics. Groups of girls, for example. Better is groups in which girls are a substantial part, though not completely dominant. Cliquishness isn't likely an improvement and every student needs to learn to work with others who are not just like themselves.

You also, as a teacher need to be aware of dynamics in the classroom. Who asks the questions? Who provides help? Who dominates the conversations? Who do you call on to answer questions? Where do students sit in the room? Who do they sit with? All of these things can be indicators of things that may need addressing.

Make your successful girls and minority students ambassadors for your program.

Try to get girls (and minorities...) to form clubs and study groups in which they can work together, so that the socialization itself is part of the coolness.

On the other hand, treat every student as an individual, no matter what their "characteristics." You may not be a natural mentor for some students but you can show through your respect for them and the way to treat them and answer their concerns, that their learning and future matter to you.

Sorry that this isn't a more complete answer. It is a deep problem without facile solutions.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.