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What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science? - [briefly]
05:36 AM EST - Nov,17 2008 - post a comment

The NY Times has an interesting article looking at the declining numbers of female Computer Science graduates. Some of the numbers are pretty drastic and the reasons are still elusive:
Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, recalls the mid-1980s, when women made up 40 percent of the students who majored in management computer systems, the second most popular major on campus. But soon after, the number of students majoring in the program had fallen about 75 percent, reflecting a nationwide trend, and the number of women fell even more. "I asked at a department meeting," he says, " ‘Where have the women gone?' It wasn't clear." His theory is that young women earlier had felt comfortable pursing the major because the male subculture of action gaming had yet to appear.

Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University's Center for Technology & Social Behavior, has written about the efforts in the 1990s to create computer games that would appeal to girls and, ultimately, increase the representation of women in computer science. In commenting as a co-contributor in a new book, "Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming," Ms. Cassell writes of the failure of these efforts, "The girls game movement failed to dislodge the sense among both boys and girls that computers were ‘boys' toys' and that true girls didn't play with computers."

She said last week that some people in the field still believed that the answer to reversing declining enrollment was building the right game. Another school of thought is what she calls the "we won" claim because women have entered computer-related fields like Web site design that are not traditional computer science. Ms. Cassell points out that it's not much of a victory, however. The pay is considerably less than in software engineering and the work has less influence on how computers are used, and whether this actually accounts for the diminishing numbers of female computer science majors remains unproved.

Ms. Cassell identifies another explanation for the drop in interest, which is linked to the pejorative figure of the "nerd" or "geek." She said that this school of thought was: "Girls and young women don't want to be that person."


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