Closing the Gender Gap in Computer Science

Computer science is largely a male dominated field, but there are trends afoot that are starting to at least chip away at that. In a recent episode of Spark, host Nora Young interviewed author Jane Margolis about her book Unlocking the Clubhouse and the computer science gender gap.

In her research, Magolis found that women were more encouraged to pursue degrees in CS when it was couched in an interdisciplinary context, rather than hacking for hacking’s sake. When CS could be applied to medical research, animation, or some other “purposeful” outcome, the programs tended to gain more women. A lot more. As the result of a concerted effort, Carnegie Mellon University was able to balloon their female enrollment. Over the course of five years, female enrollment went from 7% in 1995 to a whopping 42% in 2000.

Harvey Mudd College in Canada had a similar success story. College president Maria Klawe said that by changing the beginning course from Java to Python, and stratifying the initial courses by prior experience, the female enrollment went from 12% in 2006 to 40% in 2011 over a five year period.

Why does this matter? Because diversity of perspective and opinion matter. In the podcast, Jane Margolis noted that during the initial design of the air bag, women were not part of the design process, resulting in an air bag that was deadly for women and children. The same thing happened with speech recognition, where women literally could not be heard.

I’m hoping that this is a trend that continues. We need more Kathy Sierras, Gina Trapanis, and Michelle Greenlees.

No Responses to “Closing the Gender Gap in Computer Science”