I have spent a happy day doing what academics are meant to do, which is lurk in their offices like trolls, read papers, and search out statistics with long knobbly green fingers. A rare pleasure.
For various reasons I have been looking into gender and computing. I still need to make sense of it, so I might as well try to do so by writing a blog post.
Why is gender an issue for a computer science lecturer whose admin task is student recruitment? Well, there is a huge problem getting anyone to study computing at university. It's an international problem but one which affects our day to day running in my department. If we can't attract enough students, we have to lose staff. It's as brutal as that. So we need to find ways to attract more students. One way is to try for students from other sources than normal. In our case, only 9% of our students are female. 9%! So it's pretty obvious there's a bit of an untapped market there. Plus, I would like to teach more girls, and it's frickin' outrageous that there are so few in the department.
The national UK average for UK computing courses at uni is 22% female (CRAC 2008). How come my uni is so much lower than the national average? It might be the "College of Engineering Effect" which predicts that fewer women will enroll in computer science courses in a science and technology university (like us) in comparison to CS courses in non-technical universities (Singh, Allen, Scheckler and Darlington 2007). In fact, we are third worse department for gender balance within our uni, so that cannot be the only explanation. Even if the "college of engineering" effect puts some girls off, we can still do at least as well as the other departments within our uni.
It might be that we are horribly off putting and frighten women away. I am happy to say I haven't found support for this hypothesis as yet: I interviewed 3 of our female students who are graduating from our IT degree this year, and they said it was a friendly place with helpful staff. They said there were not treated differently because they were girls by either staff or other students. They worked together as a close knit team, and enjoyed working with the male students on their degree. The women on our Computer Science degree might have a different experience so I need to track them down to check this. In the view of the female IT students, there was a difference in the sort of people who studied IT and CS, and there didn't seem to be much contact between the CS and IT females (which is unfortunate). The CS students were seen to be geekier and less sociable.
A metaphor which keeps cropping up in the literature on women in Science, Engineering and Technology is that of a leaky pipeline. Girls' interest and involvement in these subjects typically lessens at each stage of education. Within computing in Scotland, we have 65% male studying for Standard Grade Computing, 75% for Higher, 80% for Advanced Higher (SQA 2008). For the Information Systems Higher, it is only 65% male, which is interesting as it is a less technical subject which requires less programming. For the record, there is no difference in pass rates between boys and girls in computing topics in these Scottish qualifications, or generally in the international studies of university students. As a matter of interest, 40% of computing teachers in Scotland are female (Scottish Government 2008).
In a useful review article Singh et al (2007) summarise findings about gender in computing education since 1994. (They also have some justified criticisms of methodology flaws and lack of theory in these studies but let's not go into that.) One of the most consistent findings is that women have lower self efficacy and confidence even although they don't buy into gender stereotypes about men being better at computing. Women have a "we can but I can't" attitude, meaning that a women believe that women in general can do well at computing, but she personally is not clever enough. This is in spite of the evidence that women actually do perform as well, and unfortunately low confidence can lead to dropping out. Boys are more likely to believe in gender stereotypes about computing (i.e. boys are better at it) (Meelissen and Drent, 2008). In fact, Singh et al report a study where women studying computing degrees actually have lower confidence in their computing abilities than men who are studying non-computing subjects. (WTF?)
The further you look into this the weirder it gets. Why such seemingly contradictory findings? I think I am piecing it together from the literature as follows. Meelissen and Drent found that perceived encouragement by parents accounted for 30% of the variance of 10-11 year olds' attitudes to computing in a multivariate analysis of a large scale survey over multiple schools. There is an indication that parental encouragement is more important for girls to have positive attitudes to computing than it is for boys. No data was reported on parents' actual encouragement, just what the children perceived. It may be that girls have lower confidence because they don't get as much encouragement as they feel they need at home. It may also be because they spend less time at home doing computing activities which are valued in computing in classes at school, that they don't get as much positive reinforcement from teachers at school. Vekri (2008) identifies a whole series of unconcious gender biased behaviours by teachers which can put girls off. By the time they reach university girls are often less experienced than their male counterparts who spend a lot of hobby time working on computers. And unhappily, Garvin-Doxas and Barker (2004)'s study suggests that university computer science staff have a habit of confusing intelligence with experience when they explain to students what they value. This gets girls into a situation where they feel behind the other learners because they lack experience, and they assume they can't catch up because they lack raw intelligence. It's a very interesting and disturbing study of CS classroom behaviour, and non-supportive patterns of communication but I will go into that another time.
To summarise, it seems that girls struggle against perception that they are not good at computing, and would need consistent positive reinforcement to counter it, which they typically don't get. This is exacerbated by having lots of boys around who are passionately fond of computers (Margolis and Fisher 2003) and who believe that boys are better at computing. To be a successful girl geek (if you pardon the expression - I'm not sure I like it) you need to be able to leap a series of obstacles. Put it this way, computing would have to be pretty damn exciting to convince girls it is worth persevering with, when there are lots of other interesting topics to study with fewer barriers.
CRAC (2008). Do Undergraduates want a career in IT? A study of the attitudes of current UK undergraduates in relation to careers and work in the IT sector. Retrieved 21.4.09 from https://www.crac.org.uk/crac_new/pdfs/undergraduates_it.pdf.
Garvin-Doxas, K. and Barker, L. J. 2004. Communication in computer science classrooms: understanding defensive climates as a means of creating supportive behaviors. J. Educ. Resour. Comput. 4, 1 (Mar. 2004), 2. DOI= https://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1060071.1060073
Kusum Singh, Katherine R. Allen, Rebecca Scheckler, and Lisa Darlington
Review of Educational Research 2007 77: 500-533
Margolis, J. and Fisher, A. (2003) Unlocking the clubhouse: women in computing. London: MIT Press.
Meelissen, M. R. and Drent, M. 2008. Gender differences in computer attitudes: Does the school matter?. Comput. Hum. Behav. 24, 3 (May. 2008), 969-985. DOI= https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2007.03.001
SQA 2008. Scottish Qualifications Authority Annual Statistical Report. Retreived 21.4.09 from https://www.sqa.org.uk/sqa/33682.html.
Scottish Governement (2008). Teachers in Scotland 2008. Retrieved 21.4.09 from https://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/933/0079363.pdf
Verkir, I. (2008). Paper prepared for the OECD Expert Meeting on Gender, ICT and Education, Oslo 2-3 June 2008. Retrieved 21.4.09 from https://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/43/28/40832756.pdf.