TotalCIO

Mar 15 2012   10:52PM GMT

Equality abounds in science studies, not so in computer science

Karen Goulart Karen Goulart Profile: Karen Goulart

It was lunch break on day two of the Fusion 2012 CEO-CIO Symposium but Judy Caruso was all business. Or I suppose I should say, “all IT.” The director of IT policy for the University of Wisconsin pulled up a chair next to me, commented on the quality of the lunchtime fare and followed up shortly with a question: “So, where are the women? How are we going to get women into computer science programs?” Her question wasn’t hypothetical: She was looking to all of her dining companions for answers.

Caruso has an MIS degree. She’s been in IT for more than two decades, and when she received her degree in pursuit of her love of computer science, it was kind of a rarity. Today, she said, it looks like women in computer science have only become rarer.

She’s right. According to the National Science Foundation, women have nearly achieved parity with men when it comes to receiving bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering — except in computer science. In the 2001-2002 academic year, 28% of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-2005, that percentage had declined to 22%. 

There are a number of theories for the decline of women in computer science. Here are three: Most computer games are unappealing to girls (and the ones geared specifically to them are even less appealing). Women are entering related fields like Web design (nice, but it comes with significantly lower pay and less influence in the computing world). Last, there’s the “OMG, I don’t wanna be a geek” theory. In the IT-focused microcosm of the show, for every female CIO or IT leader, there was a woman (like me) in a completely different field, such as journalism, marketing or recruiting. And there weren’t that many of us women to begin with.

So, while I poked at my locally grown lunchtime salad, my thoughts turned inward. I was once a computer programmer. Of course, at the time, I was sitting in a little plastic chair in front of an Apple IIe wearing an E.T. T-shirt. But, gosh, did my 7-year-old self love the Logo programming language! Making the turtle move across the screen to write words or make shapes — good stuff! I’d go home, and with the keyboard attached to my Intellivision game console, try to see if what I knew about Logo could apply to BASIC. Then one day, knowing that I liked to write, a teacher put Bank Street Writer in front of me, and I never saw my friend the turtle again.

I don’t blame that teacher for picking up on my interest in writing. In fact, she’s one of the reasons I’m a writer today. But I still have to wonder why writing trumped my interest in computers — or why one excluded the other. And I wonder whether this sort of subconscious nudging still goes on; it would seem it does.

It was a lot of introspection for a short lunch break that frankly left me bummed. But things got a little brighter after that. The folks at Fusion held a special presentation highlighting the work of the University of Wisconsin’s IT Academy, a four-year technology enrichment program for talented minority and low-income high school students. Looking at the brochure they handed out, I noted the gender parity in recent graduating classes. Hang in there, ladies.

What do you think is causing the dearth of women in computer science? What do you think would help bring women into the IT fold?  I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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