Gender in Computer Science sigcse

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Gender in Computer Science


  • SIGSCE is the Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education

  • I’ve just returned from the annual conference

  • A common theme, this year and every year, is attracting women to computer science--and keeping them

  • Many of these same comments apply to other minorities

  • I am very interested in this problem

What I can do

  • Not much :(

  • Most losses occur during the second year

  • I can give you:

  • some facts and figures

  • some research results

  • some opinions


  • Enrollment in computer science programs reached a peak in 1986, then declined until 1996

  • There has been an upward trend from 1996 to 2000

  • We don’t have figures past 2000

  • In 1986, female enrollment reached a peak of 40%

  • During the period 1986 to 1996:

  • Men majoring in computer science dropped by 33%

  • Women majoring in computer science dropped by 55%

  • Other minorities also dropped by larger amounts than white males

  • Why?


  • Both men and women incorrectly believe that men in CS have higher GPAs than women

  • Fact: There is no difference in GPAs

  • Fact: In my MCIT program, there is no gender difference in GREs of admitted students

  • Women who succeed in CS are often viewed as “exceptional”

  • Fact: Women and men are equally capable

  • Both groups do equally well on assignments

  • Both groups do equally well on examinations

  • Fact: Women do not have to be “better than men” to succeed

Myths II

  • Myth: Some people just have a “computer gene”

  • Fact: From a biological standpoint, it’s obvious that there is no such thing

  • Fact: As with anything, there are individual differences in ability

  • It is commonly believed (among teachers) that anyone can be taught to program

  • Fact: If you work hard, you will succeed

  • No one is born with these skills

  • Fact: Many computer “hotshots” aren’t really very good

  • My belief: There is a positive feedback loop between enjoying an activity and being good at it

Myths III

  • Computer programming is for “loners” and is basically an antisocial (or at least nonsocial) activity

  • Fact: Prospective employers shun loners and look for people who work well with others

  • Fact: Large programs are group efforts

  • Fact: Most programming methodologies are about how to best organize the programming team

  • Fact: In an educational setting, we typically insist on individual effort, mostly in an attempt to grade fairly--but this does not reflect “real world” practice


  • Stereotype: Computer science majors are intelligent but lack interpersonal skills

  • Fact: Like all stereotypes, there are individuals who fit the stereotype--but most do not

  • Stereotype: Successful computer science majors “don’t have a life” but spend all their time at the computer

  • Fact: Almost all computer scientists do have a life

  • Fact: However, CS majors do spend significantly more time on schoolwork than non-CS majors

  • In my personal experience: Obsessive programmers are less likely to succeed

Gender NON-differences

  • Research results show no significant differences between men and women in:

  • College GPA

  • ACT math, science, and composite scores

  • Interest in majoring in CS

  • Belief that CS is a worthwhile major

  • Number of hours per week spent on schoolwork

  • But: CS majors spend more time than non-majors

  • Age of first computer use

  • Knowledge of what CS is all about

More gender NON-differences

  • Estimate of how many hours computer scientists work

  • But: Differences in estimated compensation

  • Fact: Women are, on average, not as well paid as men

  • Fact: The difference is much less in the computer field

  • Importance placed on having a family

  • Belief that family life and career would be compatible for women

  • Stress level

  • Support and encouragement from others

  • Self esteem

Real gender differences

  • Research results show these statistically significant differences

  • Men have higher educational aspirations

  • Men value extrinsic rewards (e.g. money) more

  • Men are higher in aggressiveness and dominance

  • But: No difference in kindness or nurturing

  • Biggest difference: Men are more confident of their own ability


  • Confidence in ability to write a computer program:

  • Students with high math ACT scores

  • Male CS majors: 63%

  • Male non-CS majors: 60%

  • Female CS majors: 48%

  • Female non-CS majors: 44%

  • Students with low math ACT scores

  • Male CS majors: 53%

  • Male non-CS majors: 49%

  • Female CS majors: 37%

  • Female non-CS majors: 34%

Why women drop out

  • According to one study, females suffer a loss of interest in the field, preceded by a loss of self-confidence

  • Probable causes of loss of confidence:

  • Inaccurate belief that women have lower ability

  • Lack of awareness of excellent income opportunities

  • Conflict between a woman’s view of herself and (inaccurate) stereotype of “computer nerds”

  • “Stereotype threat”: Fear of confirming the stereotype

  • Less playful and relaxed attitude toward computers

Factors undermining self confidence

  • (Note: These are opinions, not research results)

  • Computer science is hard--everyone has difficulty

  • Men are less willing than women to admit to having difficulties, hence often appear more capable than they really are

  • The field is wide as well as deep: “You’re a computer science major and you don’t know that?”

  • In programming, virtually all your mistakes are stupid ones--everyone’s mistakes are stupid ones--and it’s easy to mistake this for a personal failing

Interesting tidbits

  • Percentage of women earning a bachelor’s degree is significantly lower if the CS department is in the College of Engineering rather than in the College of Arts and Sciences

  • Under-representation of women in CS appears to be a cultural problem

  • Not true in historically black colleges and universities

  • Not true in Greece, Turkey, France, Italy

  • In one study, 30% of self-rated “code warriors” failed an assignment, compared to 15% of


  • These studies suggest that women lose interest in computer science because of:

  • The mis-perception that they are not as capable as other (especially male) students

  • The (accurate) perception that they do not conform to the (mostly inaccurate) stereotype of computer “nerds”

  • The foregoing is presented in the hope that having some actual information on gender differences will help some of you in your college careers

The End

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