Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Why are female Computer Science majors declining?

As someone who has been a rather "rare" female technology professional for over twenty years, I read this article by Professor Randall Stross with interest. Afterwards, I wrote to him to point out something I don't think the article considered, at least, not directly:

Professor Stross, I sometimes think that the reason women are not drawn to a computer science degree is that the discipline deals primarily with the computer as a machine, not as a tool that can be used creatively to solve human problems, enhance human communication, and enrich human lives.

Here is the definition of our Computer Science major from the University of Oregon’s own course catalog:

“Computer science is the study of the computer as a machine, both concrete and abstract; it is the study of the management of information; and it involves the design and analysis of algorithms, programs, systems, and programming languages.”

There is not even a whisper of how the machine is used in a human social context.

Women are still given the primary role of nurturers by our culture and are socialized throughout their education with that overriding expectation. The religious fundamentalism that has dominated society in many parts of the country over the last eight years has further emphasized this cultural stereotype. So it is not surprising that the vast majority of women would find a discipline that approaches computer science as primarily the study of an inhuman machine to be less than satisfying.

Anyway, here's an abstract from the original article.

Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, recalls the mid-1980s, when women made up 40 percent of the students who majored in management computer systems, the second most popular major on campus. But soon after, the number of students majoring in the program had fallen about 75 percent, reflecting a nationwide trend, and the number of women fell even more. “I asked at a department meeting,” he says, “ ‘Where have the women gone?’ It wasn’t clear.” His theory is that young women earlier had felt comfortable pursing the major because the male subculture of action gaming had yet to appear.

Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology & Social Behavior, has written about the efforts in the 1990s to create computer games that would appeal to girls and, ultimately, increase the representation of women in computer science. In commenting as a co-contributor in a new book, “Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming,” Ms. Cassell writes of the failure of these efforts, “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.”

She said last week that some people in the field still believed that the answer to reversing declining enrollment was building the right game. Another school of thought is what she calls the “we won” claim because women have entered computer-related fields like Web site design that are not traditional computer science. Ms. Cassell points out that it’s not much of a victory, however. The pay is considerably less than in software engineering and the work has less influence on how computers are used, and whether this actually accounts for the diminishing numbers of female computer science majors remains unproved. - More (NY Times)
Post a Comment