Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Getting More Girls in Computer Science is Easy

It seems like one “silver bullet” after another keeps popping up to solve the computer science diversity problem. Today’s solution was drones. Yes, drones. Gary Stager blogged about The Secret Key to Girls and Computer Science on his blog. And it sounds like a great experience for those students. But the big answer? I’m not going to go that far.

I’ve seen a lot of indications that in other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East and north Africa the male/female balance is much different from in the US. The consensus explanation is that the culture there does not seem to hold  computer science as a man’s field. This opens it for women. The same was once true in the US but as more and more money became involved the culture changed. We’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. The big money jobs are seen as for men and the small money jobs are for women. In the old Soviet Union there were many more female doctors than male but at the same time being a doctor became lower in status and pay.

It doesn’t have to be that way and of course it should not be that way. Too often it is though. Culture is a key driver of many things. So what is the answer to the diversity issue in the US? It’s complicated. It’s cultural.

The real answer to diversity in computer science is to change the culture. We can’t fix it all in high school or even university. We can’t even fix it in Silicon Valley. It’s bigger than that. We have to work on it everywhere at once.

It’s great that the President is promoting Computer Science for All. It’s great that governors are looking to build partnerships to expand access to computer science education.Of course we’ll have to see if the various legislatures put any money into those programs. At least CS education is getting some attention and more people are aware of it as an option. That’s a step in the right direction and if it leads to more CS education in schools that means progress.

Not all of the problems are pipeline problems though. Women drop out of CS fields in greater numbers than men do. That is another cultural problem. The leadership of major companies are saying all the right things and cultural changes are often driven by the leadership. Getting the rank and file man who is jealous of his privileges and position to be more welcoming and supportive of women (and other minorities) can be harder. Many computing companies are highly competitive and many men do not welcome the challenge of more people entering the field. That is where I see the difficulty.

But this is an effort worth making. Schools have to educate more people. They have to open the field to more women and underserved populations. We also have to teach our stereotypical CS students that they are not the only people who belong. It is not enough to convince women that they can and should “do CS” but we have to make our young geeky guys understand that these people who are not like them are just as capable (often they are more so) and just as deserving and just a valuable and just as entitled to be in the field as they are.

In general I don’t think we have to “fix” women. The women are fine. We have to fix the men who are biased and who have to limited a view of who belongs in computing. As educators we need to be all over that.

Edit: No sooner do I write this post then I find this related article - INCREASING NUMBER OF WOMEN IN COMPUTING HINGES ON CHANGES IN CULTURE, NOT CURRICULUM


Mike Zamansky said...

Ok, so we have another self proclaimed CS Education expert who seems seriously lacking in CS Education experience (linked in lists his only teaching experience as an adjunct).

I've been saying for years that it's all about the culture. Well designed classes taught by really good teachers who can create the right environment.

No magic, just hard work.

Linda said...

Check Albert's credentials - they are solid as an educator, industry expert, STEMINIST and feminist. Many people will vouch for him.

Mike Zamansky said...

How many years in a K12 classroom?

Alfred C Thompson II said...

Linda I think Mike is talking about Gary Stager.

Mike Zamansky said...

Yes - I was referring to Gary Stager.

I'm down on a lot of what I view as the CS Ed establishment but that said, Alfred's a friend and is someone whom I very much respect.

Garth said...

Gary's results could still be cultural. I notice he is in Australian schools. What I see is one of two types of girls in my CS classes (but my sample is very small). Very geeky girls who just like computer stuff and really smart non-geeky girls who just do not care what the herd thinks. But I have a feeling the sample size is a bit small to make any real judgement calls, maybe 5 girls in 10 years of CS? My classes are not very big to begin with.

Anonymous said...

It's not all about culture. Men and woman are different. They think different, have different emotions, etc. Generally speaking, men are more left brained, which is why they are over represented in engineering/science.

Alfred C Thompson II said...

Left brain/right brain is pseudo-science pop psychology. It's been debunked. Women invented programming and tend to be very good at it when given half a chance. The evidence is pretty clear that culture has more to do with the shortage of women in CS in western countries.