Sexing up computer science

Does computer science's image need a makeover to attract more women to the field?

Published April 17, 2007 7:06PM (EDT)

Today's New York Times questions why there aren't more women going into the world of computer science. According to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of computer science bachelor's degrees awarded to women peaked in 1985 at 38 percent -- and has since fallen, in 2003, to 28 percent.

Considering the fact that women have been catching up to men in many other areas of science and engineering, it seems odd that computer science should be left behind. According to the article, many people suggest that this drop in numbers may be due to jobs moving overseas or the dot-com bust -- but the experts interviewed by the Times disagree. They think it may have more to do with computer science's image and worry that the lack of women (not to mention minorities) in computer science is bad news for the discipline as a whole.

Lenore Blum, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, calls women "canaries in the coal mine" -- and thinks that the same factors that repel women will eventually repel men as well, says the Times. So if it's not a lack of jobs, what's keeping women away?

Jan Cuny, a computer scientist who directs a National Science Foundation program to encourage people to enter the field, thinks that there's a strong "nerd factor" at work that includes images of pocket protectors and a "lifetime of staring into a screen writing computer code." And for some reason, this stereotype is affecting girls more than boys.

"They think of it as programming," the Times quotes Cuny as saying. "They don't think of it as revolutionizing the way we are going to do medicine or create synthetic molecules or study our impact on the climate of the earth."

I have to say that I've never devoted much thought to computer science. And I certainly never considered it in the way that Cuny described. I don't think that has much to do with my gender; rather, I was never exposed to computer science in school (besides a brief period in sixth grade when we were supposed to try to move a turtle around the screen of an Apple 2GS, which I wasn't very good at). But I'm wondering what other people think. Is it partially the fault of the advanced-placement computer science test, which the Times explains focuses mainly on Java? Is it the prerequisites? (Carnegie Mellon has recently -- and controversially -- changed its requirements to try to attract more people without programming experience. Women now make up nearly 40 percent of its computer science enrollees, up from 8 percent.) And what's the best way to encourage women -- not to mention men and minorities of both genders -- to enter the field?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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