Computer science: women out, girls in

Rikki Kite

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Nov 18, 2008 GMT
Rikki Kite

NYTimes.com recently ran an article asking "What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?" Although there's nothing particularly new in the article – the percentage of women in computer science is on the decline – the article mentions that girls who participate in computer science often come from families of computer scientists and engineers.

My daughter comes from a multi-media family – print, broadcasting, Internet, and so on – and there are a few farmers in the mix. Recently she told me that she's starting to like Algebra. It helps that my daughter has a wonderful Algebra teacher, but she also observed, "What I like about math is you're either right or wrong." You have to appreciate knowing where you stand, I suppose.

I wonder about other women (and girls) who enter into computer science from different backgrounds: What inspired them to move into computer science (or engineering, or math)? And how can we channel these personal experiences and apply them to help encourage girls and young women to consider science and technology careers in the near future?

Comments

  • On the topic of arrogance...

    I created this graphic the other day to describe the sociological issues in communication between men and women in computer science: http://colbyframeco.com/~maco/male_female_dynamics.svg
  • Changing pop culture?

    I'm a guy, so I don't exactly know how girls work. But one thing I noticed while growing up in the 90s was that to be 'cool', you can't be seen as the smart guy. In the end, I couldn't escape it as I was not only Asian, I excelled in math and had a plethora of useless info in my head. Geeks weren't too big back in those days as computers were a rarity (and my family had several computers by the mid 90s). It was mainly nerds who were shunned and teased so most people tried to shed that image to hang out with the 'cool' crowd. Needless to say, it was a vicious time to be a geek or a nerd. Nowadays, people cherish the idea of having a techie as a friend since techies are the only ones who can fix computers. But pop culture still portrays geeks/nerds/techies as losers and what not giving them a bad image. Children, especially girls, are sucked into pop culture like a religion.

    Another thing is the arrogance of the guys in computer science. I'm still in college and I go to class with some of the most arrogant people in the world. It's hard to go to class where people continue to show off what they know for some unknown reason. It's a competitive bunch and very hard to survive.
  • Not having any geeks in the family can push you into it

    There aren't really any other geeks in my family. Two of my mom's cousins that I see at Christmas, weddings, and funerals are into computers, but one got into that in the last few years, and the other is barely older than me. I didn't grow up with geeks in my family.

    I think that's the reason I'm into computers. We got a computer after some begging when I was in elementary school, and all of us kids played with it. If it broke, though, (Windows + AOL...ya know, viruses mostly) my siblings were inclined to look for someone "grown up" to fix it, while my parents were afraid to try since they were computer illiterate at that time. As the oldest child, and not being inclined to sit around and wait for someone else to do it (and thus not be able to use it in that time), I took up the task. My family just started expecting me to fix it every time something broke on the computer. If I broke it a little worse in the process...meh. I'd either figure something out or find a grown up that knew more about them to help me--but always I was in the hands-on role.

    Two things I've heard as suggestions to try to keep anyone from losing interest in computers or leaving due to low confidence are 1) recognize achievements 2) let her drive. As I said, I was expected to fix it if the computer broke. Since I was the only one in the family that could, I was the de-facto "good with computers" one. Even when I wasn't very good at figuring out what was wrong, and I was just poking til something clicked, it was expected that I could figure it out (encouragement) and once I did, my parents started referring their friends to me for computer help. The "let her drive" thing is that if you take the keyboard away, you send the message to the person that you don't think they can do it or you don't trust their judgment/skills. I said before, if I needed help fixing something, I asked for advice, but I did it myself. Being hands-on is key when it comes to computers.
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