A topic of increasing angst in computer science academic circles has been declining percentages of women in undergraduate CS curricula. Various programs have sprung up to counter the trend, such as Girls Who Code. But although these efforts are laudable, they overlook the major cause — economics.
I share the concern about the gender lopsidedness in the profession. This quarter I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate elective course, and have 13 women out of 59 enrolled. If that seems passable to you (not to me), note that I had 3 women out of 44 in my course on parallel processing last year, another advanced undergraduate elective course. Actually, I started voicing this concern to my department chair a bit before the issue became a nationwide topic around 2008.
My theory at the time was that women are more practical than men, and that the well-publicized drastic swings in the CS labor market are offputting to women more than men. This was confirmed by a 2008 survey in the Communications of the ACM, a professional magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery, which found that in choosing to enter the IT field, women placed significantly more emphasis on job security.
Last Friday NPR ran a piece titled “When Women Stopped Coding.” It was quite engaging, but was long on Political Correctness, blaming things ranging from boy-oriented toys to sexist institutions, and short on real evidence. Mind you, I don’t disagree that a sexist element runs through parts of the field, but NPR’s explanations are just wrong.
For example, the piece cited a woman who, as a first-year undergrad, had been intimidated by the presence of a fellow student, Lee Van Dorn, who already had years of programming experience under his belt. The young woman, who had planned to major in CS, bailed. NPR’s message was that the Lee Van Dorns of the CS world drive out potential female majors in the field.
Well, it just ain’t so. I’ve been teaching hundreds of CS students per year, every year since the early 1980s, and at least at my institution, the vast majority of male students are not like Lee Van Dorn in the slightest; some of them have had one course in high school, usually of very weak quality, and nothing else, and many other male students enter with no background at all. Yes, we do have some Lee Van Dorns too, but they are not typical.
Instead, the reason for the decline in female CS enrollment was literally staring the NPR reporter in the face — his graph of female enrollment (apparently measuring graduations) over time. The graph matches quite well the ups and downs, and accelerations and decelerations, of the CS job market. Of course, given the huge PR efforts made by the industry portraying the CS field as a lucrative career choice, it’s no wonder the reporter didn’t think of ups and downs; it’s all up, right?