Computing has a famous gender imbalance. It’s present in industry, but while industry can try to be as inclusive as possible, I don’t think that’s where the issue can be fixed. Last year, 13.4% of new Computer Science undergraduates in the UK were women (source: UCAS). If you take a set of companies who hire CS graduates, it’s therefore simply unlikely that you’re going to be able to get more than around 15% women in that sector. So, if the gender balance is to be altered, it falls on education as well as industry to fix the problem.
One way or another, women are being put off computing: by the stereotypes of what the job involves, or by a self-perpetuating gender imbalance, or by the experience of others, or perhaps by the stereotypes of the men in computing. CAS members Lucy Bunce and Laura Dixon (both computing teachers) have both written about issues relating to women in computing.
So what can be done to rebalance the genders in computing? I think it’s fair to categorise the approaches to fixing the gender balance into two categories: make gender an issue, or make gender a non-issue.
One approach is to decide that special measures are needed, especially groups or events targeted at women. For example, in the UK there are: BCS Women, Manchester Girl Geeks (more detail), Athena Swan, and so on. There are some compelling stories as to why women-focused inititatives are important, e.g. this story:
Dave’s behavior had a noticable effect on the [female students in the] workshop. Students tuned out, became distracted, asked less questions, and had a lot more difficulty following the material. I’d never really believed in single sex education… I never understood the outcry about the lack of women programmers or sys-admins. But my experience last weekend changed my view.
(As a side note, I believe that single-sex education could be a useful part of the solution, but that’s not a change that’s on the horizon in the UK.)
The other approach is to try to make gender a non-issue. (This is not — necessarily — the same as doing nothing.) For some women, the idea of women-specific initiatives is counter-productive. This over-the-top post argues that women in tech unnecessarily singles out women as special, while Emma Mulqueeny discusses how focusing on gender seemed to have negative effects for recruiting girls to the Young Rewired State initiative. I know from personal conversations that some women will deliberately avoid all women-specific initiatives — paraphrasing:
I don’t like these “women in technology” groups. I just want to get on with my work, without my gender being an issue. I wouldn’t be seen at a women in technology event.
Seminar leaders used to get all the women to work together [to try to avoid them being marginalised in group-work]. I hated it. I used to sit on the other side of the classroom to other women to try to avoid being automatically grouped with them.
The Simple Rule
So often in the gender issue, it seems that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I was struck by a quote recently when reading an article on nerd behaviour:
They want rules and steps that will guarantee a certain outcome, and they don’t like being told how much of it is subjective and totally out of their hands.
It’s tempting to make a leap here and say that computing people, who deal so often with specific deterministic rules, are particularly guilty of this. All who want to redress the gender imbalance would love a nice simple rule, however arbitrary:
- “To get the girls in, use role models” (except when they put off girls), or
- “to get the girls in, avoid violent game examples” (cf Laura Dixon’s comment), or
- “to get the girls in, make sure there is pink on your website” (ironically, Pink Stinks does still use pink in its theme), or whatever!
It’s not that simple, and it often seems near impossible to know which way to jump, especially since each girl’s reaction will be different. In the Computing At School group, there is currently a group forming to coordinate ways in which to get girls into computing. I believe that this is best done young, in line with Emma Mulqueeny’s quote that “Year 8 is too late”, which means schools is the right place to target. But as for what they should do about the issue — don’t we all wish we knew!