Is It a Computing Problem or Simply a Computer Science Problem


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Coming back to the main issue, though, if it’s unique to CS and relatively unrelated to IS, what might the cause of the problem be? Gender Codes offers interesting speculations.

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Is It a Computing Problem or Simply a Computer Science Problem

  1. 1. Editor: PhilippeNeilMaidenKruchten SOUNDING BOARD UniversityCityUniversityofBritishLondon,Columbia Gender Gap:Is It a Computing Problemor Simply a ComputerScience Problem?Robert L. Glass WHEN I GOT started in this field 57 (ugh!) astrophic” and “unprecedented in the history of years ago, one of the things no one ever worried the professions”). And I’ve watched the process about was its gender balance. It simply wasn’t on of various people trying to come up with our radar all those years ago. Why? Well, for one solutions to the problem, solutions that are rich thing, there were no academic computing with suggestions for mentoring, removing disciplines—they wouldn’t appear for another 15 barriers, and so on. Seemingly, there’s no years—so it didn’t matter how many women were shortage of “what to do about it” material; the taking coursework in the field because there was shortage is in results (even Misa says, “It is not no such coursework. But perhaps more clear how the situation arose, nor how to turn it importantly, there simply wasn’t a shortage of around”). female software practitioners. In the cubicles of But one particular facet of the problem I find the companies I worked for back then, my worrying: the literature of the CS field tends to recollection is that around 50 percent of our see this as a problem of the whole field of programmers were women. computing (or, in its more recent and broader term, “information technology”). And, true, if you pursue this issue across the whole of the IT Some Confusion field, you will find this concern manifest in all So where, then, did this gender problem come the field’s nooks and crannies (such as from? It certainly didn’t stem from the very information systems, information science, beginnings of the field. Something must have computer engineering, and software come along later to cause it. engineering). As an example, a recent article in Because I find this whole subject Information Technology and People was fascinating, I’ve pursued the issue in some entitled “Why Don’t More Women Major in depth. I recently read the marvelous book Information Systems?” Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving But there’s a problem with this article: it Computing (IEEE Computer Society Press and defines the field of information systems (IS) as John Wiley, 2010), which provided data about “computer science [CS], computer engineering, the rapid drop in female CS enrollments since and electrical engineering.” I don’t the mid1980s, from 35 percent or so then to 15 percent today (the editor of that book, Thomas J. Misa, calls this fact “cat continued on p. 8788 IEEE SOFTWARE | PUBLISHED BY THE IEEE COMPUTER SOCIETY 074 0 74 5 9 / 12 / $ 3 1. 0 0 © 2 0 12 I E E E
  2. 2. SOUNDING BOARD were female from 1982 to 1992, with no 1980s, the point in time where—as far as continued from p. 88 clear trend up or down.” So here we have we can see—the gender gap problem the time period in which female CS began to emerge. The first happened inknow how you feel about these various enrollments began plunging downward, the academic world. CS, which began itsacademic fields, but I see clear and but the presence of female programmers life academically in the liberal arts orimportant distinctions between the in the IS field exhibited no such trend. mathematics area, transitioned tovarious computing subfields. IS in my Equally interesting, the book’s editor engineering schools at that point, whichviewpoint (and in the viewpoint of my didn’t notice this contradiction, and drew might be very significant, because femalewife, who is deeply involved in that field) the conclusion (apparently erroneously) enrollment in engineering is traditionallyis primarily about the business that gender balance was a problem across far lower than in the liberal arts orapplications of software development and the computing field. mathematics. The second happened in theusage. That’s a far cry from CS (which Here we have one small piece of broader world. The personal computertends to be disinterested in most evidence that the gender gap problem came along at roughly this same timecomputting applications and certainly in might be unique to CS and not true of the period, and it was rapidly adopted byits business applications). It’s also a far whole of the field of computing. Of males as a kind of new boy toy. Both ofcry from computer and electrical course, one small piece of evidence doth these events could have combined to be aengineering, which cover the field’s not a trend create! So what is a person turnoff to young women thinking ofhardware aspects, just about as far from curious about the gender gap to do? Since majoring in CS.IS as it is possible to get and still be in stumbling across this apparent Perhaps it’s worth saying at this pointthe computing field. In other words, contradiction, I’ve been trying to gather that the gender gap problem doesn’t existwhile the title seems to say that IS has the more evidence on the matter. I’ve poked only in the computing field. The legalsame gender problem as CS, the fact of around among various IS folk to see what field, for example, is wringing its handsthe matter is that the research approach kind of data there is on female over a similar issue. An article by Chrisused, by equating the two fields, enrollments in IS, and what I’ve found, to Merritt (“High Attrition Rate Masksguarantees that they have the same date, is pretty skimpy data that doesn’t go Demographic Shift to Women,” Thecharacteristics. much further in identifying whatever Australian, 2 Dec. 2011) says, “50.5% of trend exists in the IS field. In fact, based women who entered private [legal] on too little data at this point, I would practice in 2006 are no longer working atAnd a Contradiction? have to say that the gender problem is the state’s law firms.” (This finding isNaturally, this raised a big question for certainly not endemic across the IS field, part of an Australian report that addressesme: “Is the gender balance problem and that it might exist in some institutions the twin issues of stemming the femaleunique to CS, or is it manifested in other of higher learning and not in others. exodus from the field and enabling moreIT fields, such as IS?” Most of the That’s fairly unsatisfying, and I intend to women to achieve advancement.)thinking of experts in the field seems to pursue the matter further. As we speak,be that the problem has spread across the I’m using my column (“Through a Glass,computing fields, from CS to IS andbeyond. But is there evidence to supportthis thought? Interestingly, Gender Codes offers a Darkly”) in Information academics on the history of female Systems Management to seek input from other IS participation in their field. I don’t believe A t this point in 2012, I’ve found insufficient evidence to conclude that the CS gender gapclue. Mostly written by CS contributors, we’ve begun to get a sufficient problem extends across the breadth of theit has a chapter written by someone from understanding of the gender gap’s computing field. Why might this bethe old field of data processing, now relationship to the broader computing important? As CS seeks to explore andcommonly known as IS, and what he said world. perhaps eventually solve the problem, itcontradicts the thought that the gender needs to concentrate on its own house,balance problem is computing wide. Clues about Cause not the broader halls of IT. And that’s a Coming back to the main issue, though, if simpler problem to address, isn’t it? Recall that conventional wisdom has it’s unique to CS and relatively unrelated ROBERT L. GLASS is president of Computing Trends,female CS enrollments peaking in the to IS, what might the cause of the publisher of The Software Practitioner newsletter, andmid1980s and on a downward cascade problem be? Gender Codes offers an honorary professor of software engineering atever since. But this IS author in Gender interesting speculations. Misa mentions Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. He is a fellow ofCodes said something quite different: two things that happened to CS in the mid ACM. Contact him at“about 37% of [IS] programmers MARCH/APRIL 2012 | IEEE SOFTWARE 87
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