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Episode #79

The Way We Teach Computing Hurts Women

And someone found a solution

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

High School girls participate in Chick Tech, one of a growing handful of program designed to get more women interested in studying and creating technology. (ChickTech/flickr)

Up until the mid 1980s, women flocked to computer science in droves. Then they dwindled away like the dinosaurs. Now, only about 12 percent of computer science majors are women and they hold just one in four "computer workers."

It's bad, but not bleak.

We bring you tales of success from technology's gender gap on this week’s New Tech City from the president of a college that quadrupled its female CS majors to a woman whose invisible friend named Ruby helps her code. You see, girls are attracted to what you can do with computer programming and the stories the code can tell. But that's not what most classes have taught.

We bring you the story of the shift. Plus, inspiration from the first computer programmer ever, who just happened to be a woman and the daughter of a very famous literary figure.  

Solutions, stories, and why rolling back tech's gender gap could make all the difference to the future of the U.S. economy. Yes, it's that big of a deal. 

*A previous version of this post stated the incorrect percentage.

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Comments [19]

After a nod to the fact that not all boys, and all girls, each think in a particular way, the rest of this story does a great job of affirming gender stereotypes.

"You see, girls are attracted to what you can do with computer programming and the stories the code can tell." And boys are interested in how programming works, whereas girls are interested in learning about computing as part of understanding how to solve problems, or being creative? This is encouraging the idea that girls and boys are so very different, which is the opposite of what we should do - ask the Hunter students from Russia and India that were interviewed in the story. Did they need a special program to encourage them to study math and science? Or was it a social expectation that everyone learns?

I think that Nabil from Chatham, NJ has it right - neither girls nor boys are exposed enough early on to computational thinking. This is the approach we need to take.

Right now my high schooler is looking for a summer class in NYC to learn programming, since he sees that he is going to need to learn more about computing to pursue a career in science. There are numerous free programs aimed at girls, or at those underrepresented in the sciences. For him, no -- if he really wants to learn, he'll teach himself I guess.

I really think that encouraging the notion that "girls are different" and have to be coaxed like hothouse flowers to learn computer science, is a sign of a bigger social problem in how Americans think about equality and opportunity.

Mar. 29 2014 09:10 AM
tom LI

From this and the avalanche of similar stories - its clear that we should not be teaching boy and girls together all the time. Segregation for a good part of their school lives might fix the overall problems. Bring the kids together in some sort of "Lab" atmosphere, so they can work on and share things together, etc - but clearly boys need special attention as do the girls in the regular hour by hour classroom setting.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but dont same sex High Schools (usually private) produce better graduates and future College students than do the mixed sexed, public schools?

Sure would decrease all the sexual tensions that we also hear a lot about...in public schools.

Mar. 28 2014 03:25 PM
Linda from New York

I graduated in computer science back in the early 70's. While women were in the minority in my computer science degree, they were still substantial in number and they all found ready employment in the field. I started out in my first job writing code and was soon regarded as a "gun" programmer, the person you went to when something needed debugging or new technology needed to be explored. I eventually led large project teams of programmers building the first real time systems,such as the systems that managed banking networks or supported customer service processes. In my first appointment as a project manager, I had three deputy project leaders, all of them women. Some of the men on the team even hinted at discrimination.

I think women were well suited to the field in part because there is an element of programming that is language-based and women were good at language - I had two language majors on my team. Back then, there was a cost associated with testing your programs and being thorough and meticulous counted. Women were generally better in that regard.

As suggested in the segment, at some point writing code migrated to being a "jock" option. Clearly it has alienated women. I remain convinced that women have innate strengths that suit them to the field and we need to find a way to engage them again. It's tragic that a field where women were once so prevalent has become a province for the boys.

Mar. 26 2014 11:44 PM
Nabil from Chatham, NJ

Last year, our local 1200 student suburban NJ high school offered a Computer Science class that was attended by 19 kids....19 boys. Our school did its best to attract student by offering a class and staffing it with great faculty. While some high schools do have larger/more developed offering, many NJ high schools don't even have a CS class.

However, there was little done to expose kids - both genders- to computational thinking any earlier. There is nothing in the extensive state mandated curriculum that requires that. So it is not done. And the schools will not waste tax-payer money creating classes that no one will sign-up for.

While we can ask the school to embrace new programs, the community decided to mobilize and put together creative schemes to attract kids to aspects of Computational Thinking early on: For Middle Schoolers, a parent volunteer improvised a Summer App Development Camp (everybody, including girls want to develop their own app); In the fall, we signed a group of girls into an App Challenge run by one of the wireless carriers; In the Winter we brought a college student volunteer to teach the kids Scratch and Python. For elementary school kids we put together a Robotics summer and after school classes where every K-5 kid was able to build and program their robot exposing them -often for the first time- the computational thinking. Our community group (ChathamSTEM) and our school participated in the Hour of Code. They all loved it, girls and boys. Better yet, we now have a squadron of trained middle school students (a majority of girls) teaching the K-3 kids the robotics class while the high schoolers teach the middle schoolers. It's a Win-Win-Win configuration with minimal cost.

Yes we had to beg-and-borrow, parents had to volunteer either skills or chaperoning time. With the help of a local college (Prof. Dan Duchamp from the Stevens Institut of Technology), the cost of those programs was nominal. Under the leadership of our Board of Education and Superintendent (Dr. LaSusa), new classes are being added and new teachers are being hired to service all the kids in the school.

This year, for the first time, an unprecedented number of freshman - including a record number of girls - have signed up for the the Computer Science Class offered at the high school.

Computer Science is one a number of STEM fields we plan to reinvigorate in our community. Some of it will make into the curriculum and a lot of it will remain extra-curricular. It will take some parental involvement but that is not different from what we do for little league or our soccer or gymnastics activities and the many miles we have to drive or fundraising bake sales or raffles we have to organize. For those communities that can (and not all of them can), we have the obligation to do so.

Ask not, what your school can do for you. Ask what you can do for your school.

Nabil Mouline
A parent of two K-8 girls

Mar. 26 2014 01:15 PM

agoldmark: fair point. thanks for the feedback.

Mar. 26 2014 01:14 PM
Nathalie from New York, NY

We at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College learned that 55% of all women who take intro level classes at Columbia drop within the first 2 weeks, so we incubated a student-run business called Athena Digital Design (www.AthenaDigitalDesign.org), which aims to introduce women to coding by teaching them to make their first website (for small, local businesses and non-profits). Our very first client was The Malala Fund and we haven't launched publicly yet. We've already put our first class through the program and the next will start in September. The stories we heard from the girls who applied are heartbreaking, while many stories were about subtle messages, many girls are being overtly told they aren't welcome.

Mar. 26 2014 12:39 PM
Jane van S from NYC

Both my children are in the tech industry. Our daughter, in 2007, was told by her CS prof that he wouldn't learn her name because she wouldn't be in the class in 2 weeks' time! She finished 3 courses and has a career in tech, despite that sort of gender bias. (She's not a programmer, but works on usability research and design). At the app where she works, in SF, there has been a sharp decrease of female employees in the last 3-4 years, as measured in San Francisco in general. Women are often so tired from being marginalized (not being included in meetings is a huge problem) that they simply move on to another field of work. We all lose when women are not part of tech conversation and innovation.

Mar. 26 2014 11:58 AM
Adam from New York

As the proprietor of several successful software and technology services ventures, I would like to see more competent onshore development resources. I don't care if they are a member of {gender_list}. When I look for Ruby developers, I am looking competent developers with communication skills, ability to identify and solve problems in software design, etc. Enjoying to spend lots of time in documentation and on the keyboard makes a good developer. I am excited every time I find one and gender has nothing to do with it. The skills for software development are not found in the pants of CS students, they are developed over time on keyboard.
That said, I regularly run across age discrimination in technology, but that is another story.

Mar. 26 2014 11:30 AM

Spasquali, you are correct. I've fixed the wording up there to conform to this Census doc. (http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/img/cb13-162_stem_female-hi.jpg)

Alan, Laura, rh, John, thanks for the thoughtful comments. What educators kept telling us is that the college CS courses were designed for a particular kind of mind and thinking: the student who loved to code in high school, is already familiar with it, and loves it for it's own sake. And it just happens that that kind of student right now tends to be male. The changes suggested in this show work to invite more people generally to CS, male and female, but in doing that, the ratio of CS majors overall improves toward parity.

Mar. 26 2014 11:15 AM
Marco

That's a bogus question until we ask "how can we balance male participation as teachers, dental hygienists, phlebotomists, indeed throughout all of healthcare and other, currently growing fields?" I urge you to read the excellent, woman-authored article "End of Men" in Atlantic Magazine to get some perspective on how much of a "problem" it is to boost female involvement in the tech sector...

Mar. 26 2014 10:40 AM
John Gilmore from New York

3 women are graduating from college in the US for every two men, and we are worried about increasing womens' enrollment in one of the few areas where more men that women are graduating? This is blatant sexism. Obviously the bigger problem is why aren't men enrolling and graduating in all the other fields as the the same rate as women? And are we doing a much worse job preparing boys for college than girls?

Mar. 26 2014 09:53 AM

I well appreciate that there's a shortage of women in computer science. This has been observed across the STEM fields for some time, and MIT has done the best job of addressing the issue. Sheryl Sandberg's advice to "lean in" just doesn't cut it.

But, I am concerned about this exploration:

Computer science curricula "play to the male student's standard inclinations: how computers and code work, and not what women are looking for: how computers can solve problems or create things."

Sorry, but that seems like an artificial distinction. Knowing how code works is necessary to knowing how to solve problems or create things, or even knowing which problems are solveable."

I don't doubt there are cultural problems within tech, as well as blockages which prevent women from succeeding in tech. However, some of these very problems would prevent young men from excelling in tech if they do not excel in prototypical technie-engineering thinking.

There's nothing wrong with turning "liberal arts" students into tech students. It's laudable. But that's true regardless of any student's gender or skill set.

Mar. 26 2014 09:01 AM
spasquali from New York

There are some flaws in this analysis.

Most glaringly, 25% of the computing workforce is female -- not 17% as stated. This is clearly indicated in the very link referenced in the article. Generally, I'm not sure how this number is even determined. I don't see how these "once in a few years" reports can possibly reflect the highly dynamic workforce within, say, internet startups. Nevertheless, I don't doubt that in fact these occupations are dominated by males.

More importantly, I would shy away from correlating the number of women in CompSci programs with employment in the field in general. Without even considering the pull of radical "entrepreneurism not education" theories (eg. Peter Thiel's), it must be noted that many "computing" jobs need no formal education -- that formal education is often a hindrance, not a benefit. Self-taught programmers/techies abound, with many becoming famous as world-changing geniuses. Even Google admits that the number of people without a college education reaches "as high as 14 percent on some teams" ( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google.html )

Mar. 26 2014 08:50 AM
Marla from New Jersey

In the mid-80's I graduated with a Comp. Sci. degree, and worked with many other women programmers. My attraction to the field was solely because of 2 short programming courses offered at my high school.

I'm sad to hear that the numbers have fallen so drastically, but glad to hear that people are working on ways to reattract women to Computer Science.

Mar. 26 2014 08:39 AM
Ruthie DiTucci from Florida and Manhattan

In the eighties, I was a mere affiliate for NetworkSolutions and Register.com and would move back and forth between the two registrars leveraging my commissions.

I was the only Hispanic female that headed an affiliate company during that time. I earned 50 to 70K monthly and if I was making that amount in commissions, imagine what kind of money I must have been bringing in for NetworkSolutions!

Considering I was one of the few domain name registration, female affiliates in the industry, you would have thought I'd be welcomed with open arms - NOT AT ALL.

Meetings that would have helped me were held on the golf course (I don't golf). Other gatherings were held privately at individual's homes. I would hear about the meetings afterward but that was useless to me since one can't really show up at any person's private home without an invite.

Back then, my offering was to provide a domain name for $35.00 usd annually (to anyone) with everything included - email, hosting, everything.

I was told by a NetworkSolutions VP that if I didn't take that offering off the table, that they'd run me out of business. They kept their promise.

The next thing I knew, I was being chased down by the DOJ on behalf of NetworkSolutions attorneys that had transferred over from the DOC and vice versa. In order to save my business and end the litigation, I had to take my company out of US jurisdiction by moving it to Hong Kong in order to protect it. That rendered the case a moot point.

Now, in 2014 we are still offering the same product: a domain name with everything included for the same mere price of $35.00 usd per year just as we offered 16 years ago.

http://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/html/2000/d2000-1286.html

Having a fairly decent sense of humor, I noted that while Monica Lewinsky was honing her craft on Bill Clinton she was rewarded with a million dollar book deal and a handbag line. I had built DomainAvenue.com quite honorably with cash from my own savings account. I didn't borrow a dime.

You would have thought, I would have been rewarded and Monica would have been punished but instead, it was the other way around.

Now, NetworkSolutions' current day business model is exactly the business model I proposed in the eighties for which they ran me out of the country. They are buying, trading and leasing domain names as I was doing in the eighties.

No - the computer science industry did not accept women then and they're still having trouble accepting them today.

Mar. 26 2014 08:33 AM
rh from near nyc

I don't understand how it is not okay to say "women aren't good in math and science" and then an article like this appears which indicates "women aren't good in math and science, and we are helping them by appreciating this" in the name of gender equality.

What I hear from this story is that there is a huge disparity in the number of American citizens who are computer science majors and the number of international students who are computer science majors. The gender gap appears to be a by-product of that.

Mar. 26 2014 08:33 AM
Laura M from Austin, TX

I must be really weird or something because my very favorite part if my CS curriculum at UM was the part in the first semester intro class where we learned about levels of abstraction and how a computer actually works. It pulled me in and I got really interested but I have rarely been as excited about most other things I've learned since then (got a CS degree, have worked over ten years in the tech industry). Also, as a technical trainer (which is my current profession after years in software engineering), it's a bad idea to leave how computers work out of a curriculum. Over the years I have had students who had major gaps in their understanding and it is more difficult for them to learn more advanced concepts if they don't have a good foundation.

That point aside, very interesting story and it would be great to see more women in CS and CE.

Mar. 26 2014 08:26 AM
G

"big OF a deal"? It should be "big a deal."

Mar. 26 2014 08:01 AM
Garyboy from Manhattan

Why always the anti-male bias?

Mar. 26 2014 07:57 AM

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