Why aren’t more women in computer sciences?

Author’s note: This research accompanying this piece has been in process since Oct, 2013. This write up and research publication was delayed because we first offered it to the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences Member Central site. However, it took them a while to announce it wasn’t something they were interested in. The team that did this research decided to publish the concept and findings on Insanitek this week.

A while ago the Wall Street Journal ran a piece asking why women aren’t interested in computer sciences. The piece cites a piece of research done by Cheryan et al that puts the blame on the media and our social perceptions of the types of people that become computer scientists.

The fault lies with the media, say Sapna Cheryan, Victoria C. Plaut, Caitlin Handron and Lauren Hudson in a paper published by Sex Roles. The researchers asked nearly 300 students from Stanford University and the University of Washington to describe computer science students. Intelligent, technology-oriented, singularly focused on computers, socially awkward, interested in science fiction and video games and physically unattractive were among the most common responses. Women who had taken a computer science class were less likely to generate a stereotypical description of a computer science student than those who had never taken a course.

Well, as an educator that work with teens in a non-traditional setting, I am in a position to teach kids skills they need for the future and help them make their dreams come true. I’m also in a position to influence the teens’ perceptions about various fields. Thus, I began to wonder how I could change the course of things. But first I needed some information.

Why does it matter?

I, personally, think that every individual should be able to choose their career based on what they like. Numbers on gender don’t matter so much if that is what the person really wants to do. I have known many fine computer scientists of all backgrounds, race, ethnicity, and genders — even transgender. They are a diverse bunch of people, and very few of them exhibit the traits which are stereotypically applied and discussed in Ms. Cheryan’s paper:

  • Intelligent

  • Technology-oriented

  • Singularly focused on computers

  • Socially awkward

  • Interested in science fiction and video games

  • Physically unattractive

Despite of what I, personally, have witnessed, the idea that there isn’t equal numbers of both genders in any particular field seems to put people off. This lack of gender equality could mean that fewer women choose the field because they feel less comfortable choosing it.

What’s holding these young ladies back?

Thus, I began to ask: what is really holding all these young ladies back from choosing computer science (CS) as a career? I can help them become more comfortable choosing a field in computers if it is something they are truly interested in. To know what is holding them back, though, I needed some research done. I wanted to ask my students where I teach, my colleagues and peers in the research industry, and several people from the general public what they thought of computer scientists. What are the labels they would give them? By knowing this, I would know what words might cut the young lady’s chances of feeling comfortable in her own skin and in that career.

I also wanted to know from the students why they would or wouldn’t choose CS as a future. I wanted them to put the labels on and explain it to me so I truly understood where they were coming from. However, I knew I couldn’t do this alone. So, I approached the sociologist that work at Insanitek and asked them for help. I asked them to help me find out if CS professionals are seen in that light by all generations or if it is something to worry about with the kids I’m teaching today. I also needed to get as many people surveyed in the shortest time we could manage with very little resources.

The study

The initial research team consisted of 2 sociologists, 3 computer scientists, 1 accountant, 2 interns under a chemist, a biologist and myself. All of these people showed interest in knowing the outcomes, so they volunteered their time to help out. We came up with the following plan: a team of volunteers would pitch the survey, then hand out the questionnaires or direct them to an online survey collected via Google Documents. All questions were identical regardless of the form they were collected in, though.

Initial results

The initial results from our survey were from the kids at Insanitek, the local Children’s Museum (in Indianapolis), 4 Indianapolis Branch Libraries, 6 churches, and several of the students we privately tutor from the public school along with their friends and family. We had very few online responses up to the point where this data is presented. We are still taking responses online and updating the results every year with the new responses.

Basic background data
Male 35

Female 40

Age <13 6 ; 13 – 15 23;  16 – 17 15;  18 – 24 11;  25 – 35 5 ; 35 – 45 13;  45+ 2

Educational background

Middle school 6; Junior high 23; High school 17; Community college 5; Associates degree 3; Bachelor’s degree 13; Master’s degree 5; Ph.D. 2; Vocational degree 0; Skilled tradesman training 1

Summaries of thoughts

These answers are a lumped summary of what people responded with. We looked for similarities in what they said, then attempted to lump them into similar responses. For example, if someone said, “Works on hardware” and another person said, “Installs hardrives”, then we lumped them together. The percent that follows is the rounded percent of people that responded in such a way.

Many of these answers are hazy. This is because we did not wish to feed or bias responses in any way. We wanted them to describe CS positions in their own words. For example, we are unclear if the respondent meant “programs” as apps or software programs in general.

There is a lot of work to be done to clarify and get usable responses, but this is a start.

What do you think a computer scientist is?

  • A person who works on upgrading or fixing computers (20%)
  • A person that works on programs (43%)
  • A person that works on computer hardware (27%)
  • A person that works on makes apps. (10%)
What do you think the job is like?

  • Boring (46%)
  • Time consuming/tedious (45%)
  • Fun (1%)
  • Challenging (6%)
  • Rewarding (2%)

Give 3 descriptive words that come to mind that would describe a CS person. Words below are in order of most frequently noted as a use for the people.

Quiet, hermit, “likes computers a lot”, lazy, smart, magician, lonely, boring, unavailable, nerdy

To kids: Would you consider being a CS professional? Why or why not?

  • No, I’d rather work in <some other field or with some other thing> (85%)
  • Yes, I want to make apps/games (0.5%)
  • No, I don’t like sitting for long times (10.5%)
  • No, I don’t like computers much (4%)
To adults: If you had to change careers, would you consider CS? Why?

  • Yes, there is a lot of opportunity there. (10%)
  • Yes, I can work from home. (15%)
  • No, I’m not that interested in the field. (75%)

Interested in adding your two cents to the survey? Click on this link. It’ll take you to the Google Docs survey, and you can add your perspective. We will revisit the results every year and update it if there are any new responses.

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