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What Are the Theories Behind Computer Technology Gender Gap? - 2002-08-02

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of American women relative to men in information technology careers has declined over the last 10 to 15 years. As an example, in 1987 women made up 36.6 percent of the computer programmers in the United States. By the year 2001, only 26.6 percent of computer programmers were female, a drop of 10 percent. Women, who comprise more than half the general population in the United States, make up a disproportionately small percentage of the information technology field and some people are working to change that.

In this increasingly computer-driven world, people with the ability to write computer programs the complex codes that tell the computer what to do, can shape what we know, how we learn, and how we work and play. In one sense, the ability to write computer programs can be considered a form of literacy. That is why many scholars are concerned about the declining participation of women in the information technology field.

Jane Margolis, author of the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women In Computing, believes the industry's widening gender gap might be rooted in how children of both sexes first experience computers. She's observed men and women enrolled at the computer science program at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She said that both male and female students had experience with computers going in, but the amount and type of experience varied greatly by gender.

"For the boys, we heard a lot of stories about this gravitational pull, between them and the computers, this magnetic attraction, stories of, 'when I first saw the computer, had my hands on it I knew this is what I wanted to do...'; a lot of father-son internships, accounts of the father helping them build computers in the basement. The games that they played really pulled them in to want to tinker with the machine. Their friendship groups, you know, revolved around the computer," she said.

The women interviewed by Ms. Margolis had the same level of math skills and problem solving abilities as the men. However, when growing up, they didn't seem to have as much interest in computers or receive as much encouragement as the younger males did.

"Their early accounts had very few father-daughter internships many more accounts of watching from the sidelines. The male member of the family, 'he was the one who was really into it' and she instead would be more watching from the sidelines at the cool stuff he did. There was less hands-on tinkering. Computing was not the sole magnet that kept their friendships together and computing was one interest of several," she said.

Ms. Margolis said that the almost "gravitational pull" many boys feel toward the computer is more a question of nurture than nature. She notes that by the time they reach university, men typically have had more hands-on experience with computers, giving them a potentially intimidating advantage over their female student counterparts.

Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital arts at University of Oregon, has worked to level the playing field for women in the computer industry. She recalls her experience running an arts and technology education program for inner city girls in Buffalo, New York. She says she learned to structure her teaching style to match the way she believes girls enjoy learning about computers.

"When we designed that program, we started using the technology and you know, here's how to make cool computer graphics," she said. "And it wasn't until we were really tying those things into people's lives. Bring in your best friend's picture to scan. Let's go on the Internet and look for your favorite musical group and we'll scan you in as part of the band. Using the technology for a pleasurable activity or some way of communicating, some way of really tying into someone's life, is much more effective with girls."

Mary Flanagan insists that tailoring classes to young girls will be a big confidence-booster and give them some of the hands-on experience that many young boys already have with computers.

Debbie Heisler is a graduate computer science student at the University of Maryland and her upbringing is certainly not typical. She has had plenty of hands-on experience with computers. She can recall her father encouraging her to use the family computer. Ms. Heisler says she even taught herself to write simple computer programs at a young age. But she agrees with Jane Margolis that some women feel uncomfortable in technology-related majors. When women find themselves outnumbered my men in such courses, Ms. Margolis says, instances of sexism can discourage them from pursuing careers in the field.

Debbie Heisler actually started her education in computer engineering, which is a discipline that has more to do with designing computer chips than writing programs. She left that to follow a more programming-oriented path, in part, because of the way her peers in the computer engineering department treated her.

"In one of my engineering courses, there were like 20 guys and three women and I was in a groups of these guys and I'd say an idea and they'd ignore it until one of the guys said it. That really made me angry. And I didn't find that happening in the computer science department, because the guys were more, I wouldn't necessarily say comfortable with women, but they didn't try to suppress you. Some of them were more in awe that a female was talking to them. So they were more open and let you talk more," she laughed.

Ms. Heisler admits that she generally feels comfortable with the higher ratio of men in her programming classes.

But what can be done to encourage more women to feel they belong in computer fields? Jane Margolis believes that having more women involved in computer science in the first place would help answer the question of comfort. But it then becomes a question of how to encourage more women to enter the field.

University of Maryland professor Allison Druin has one solution to this problem. She teaches courses that look at ways of designing better educational technologies for children. This draws a significant number of women into her classes. She insists that having a goal in mind that involves using technology to solve certain real-world problems encourages everyone to learn.

"In my courses, I have a very big mix of students. In the same course computer education students, computer science students, library science students and what I'll find is that even the most focused student on the more traditional aspects of computer science, by being in an interdisciplinary environment, actually does change in the way they see things. I find that the earlier in their computer science education that they come to me, the more change and the more impact that I can have on them than in a later time, especially as a graduate student and so on," Ms. Druin said.

Ms. Druin believes her role as an educator is to challenge people to think outside the box, to embrace innovative ideas. She stresses that looking at the bigger picture benefits both women and men.

"One of the critical things we need to teach our students is it's not about falling in love with that technology first and then finding a solution to be able to use it. It's about finding what the hard problems are and bringing any technology to bear on it," she said.

Author Jane Margolis believes in a more basic approach to getting women involved in computer science. She points to a new recruitment policy at Carnegie Melon University that she says was based on her research.

"Don't give extra points for those kids that have been hacking away their entire lives, but also look at students who really want to be computer scientists, have high academic standards, grades and tests, who want to make a contribution to the community and have a vision of what they want to do with their computer science knowledge," she said. "So don't just look at who has won all the top contests, who has built all these robots, because if you do that, you're not going to get any women."

Ms. Margolis said that more than forty percent of the students enrolled in Carnegie Melon's computer science curriculum are now women. Ms. Margolis adds that the new recruitment policy is not a quota system. She points out that the women who successfully complete their computer science degrees after four years are just as capable as their male counterparts at computer programming.

Ms. Margolis and professors Flanagan and Druin agree that engaging group projects and teaching technology that has a value to the real world, will keep more women and men interested in computer science once they begin their education.