Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Where did all the women (in Computer Science) go?

In the article "What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?" of the New York Times on November 15, 2008, Randall Stross addresses the fact that the number of women in Computer Science has decreased in the last couple of decades and (which is not the case in other Science and Engineering areas).
In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent. Data collected by the Computing Research Association showed even fewer women at research universities like M.I.T.: women accounted for only 12 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science and engineering in the United States and Canada granted in 2006-7 by Ph.D.-granting institutions, down from 19 percent in 2001-2. Many computer science departments report that women now make up less than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates.

Stross points out some of the reasons for this behavior:
Last week, Ms. Margolis said that “a lot of the girls who were doing computer science came from families of computer scientists and engineers.” Her explanation: “It was in the air. There was the expectation that they could do whatever they wanted.” Ms. Spertus’s father was an M.I.T.-trained engineer. She learned programming even before personal computers had arrived, using computer terminals in her house that were connected to a Honeywell mainframe used by the family’s business.
Twenty-five years ago, more young women in colleges and universities were drawn to computer science than today. From 1971 to 1983, incoming freshman women who declared an intention to major in computer science jumped eightfold, to 4 percent from about 0.5 percent

I can relate to this, I come not only from a family of engineers, but female engineers.

Another explanation for this behavior in this article is the pejorative figure of the "nerd" or "geek", not very appealing to girls and young women.
At least we know one thing: it’s possible to have about the same number of men and women in computer science classes. That just about describes classrooms of 25 years ago.

Although it's not clear what happened the last two decades, I hope we can change this tendency, I'm happy to be part of CU-WISE, where we believe that women should be able to seek higher education and achieve success in science and engineering without barriers, perceived or otherwise. After all, we are "cool geeks".

See the full article online.


Mackenzie said...

Regarding the math thing...

I can handle most arithmetic. I can change bases or do normal geometry. Calculus was hell for me. Math is supposedly necessary to be a computer scientist, but I don't think so. Algorithms? Yes, but math? If it just means being able to figure out the steps necessary to solve a problem, of course. Being able to execute those steps though...not so much.

Gail Carmichael said...

I'd say that you need a mathematical way of thinking to do well in computer science (in order to think algorithmically). But you don't always need advanced mathematics - that just depends on the area you specialize in. For example, I haven't used calculus since I took the class in second year, and forgot a lot of it now! But I use algebra ALL the time. And, of course, this really only applies to pure computer science - most people who just want to do software development need even less math in general.