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