Friday, October 22, 2010

Why So Few Women in Computer Science?

I've previously posted on why computer science makes a great major for women. Given the advantages, why don't more college-going women look into it?

A blog post by Dr. K considers the possibility, as brought up by Dr. Margaret Burnett, that the abrasive metaphors found in computing (e.g. "killing" a program, "zombie" processes) may turn girls off of computer science. That's one I've never heard before. As a tomboy child flanked by brothers, growing up in a Dungeons and Dragons household, I don't consider myself a good judge of this hypothesis.

A comment on the post points to the unattractive "nerdy" stereotype associated with computer experts. I think this a more likely deterrent: even brainy girls tend to have a bit too much vanity (at least on the basic personal hygiene level) to want anything to do with that image. But if the "geek chic" trend keeps up, that image problem could be solved any year now.

As for the terminology, I think the problem isn't that girls find the computer nerds' jargon disgusting; it's that they find it alien and intimidating. You see, they generally haven't been brought up speaking the language.

According to my observations, a lot of nerds first gained computer expertise years before they and their classmates could take high school programming classes. They got it during middle school years while hanging out with their computer nerd friends, programming games on their home-built computers in an atmosphere of male bonding. I played video games with my brothers quite a bit when I was a kid, but when my older brother invited his buddies over and they learned QBasic together, I didn't feel like I belonged there. So I didn't learn programming until I stumbled upon a C++ tutorial years later.

A lot of the guys who end up studying computer science in college come from the nerd-male-bonding background I've described. They spout all sorts of jargon that I, the n00b programmer that I was when I entered college, had scarcely heard. I understood logic and math, and I was ready to learn, so I wouldn't say I had a real academic disadvantage. But the social climate had me feeling left behind sometimes. Many of us girls have the smarts that it takes, but as freshmen most of us aren't gutsy enough to stick with a potential interest if we don't have a network of support. That's something I think is missing for young women who might otherwise consider C.S.

What discussion have you seen on why there are so few women in computer science? What do you think of it, and how can we make the field more welcoming?

No comments: