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Gender equity in the computing and information sciences is one of those
issues everyone except the most die-hard chauvinists looks at and thinks:
"why are we still talking about women in computing?"
Now that I think of it, the chauvinists probably feel that way as well, albeit for different reasons.
Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, the former a social scientist from UCLA and the latter a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, spent several years tracking the progress of female students through the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon and throughout the primary and secondary school systems around the United States. Much of their research was made up of interviews of the students themselves, but they also brought in high school teachers from around North America for instructor-led training in techniques for making girls more comfortable in computer science curricula.
Identifying the source of the discomfort was easy, at least when the female students were in their first year of college. The biggest difference between men and women entering university computer science programs was the amount of time male and female students spent with computers when they weren't doing schoolwork. Even when you set aside the prototypical nerd who does nothing but stare at lines of code displayed on a monitor in an otherwise darkened room at 3:00a.m., the average male student spent far more time "playing" with a computer than did his female counterpart. As a result of this time spent with the machines, usually playing with the hardware as well as writing custom programs, male students arrived at university with far broader knowledge bases than the female students. That difference translated into the males moving easily through first year courses, usually because they had already been exposed to the material, and the females struggling because they were trying to absorb concepts and techniques the instructors assumed most of their students already knew.
The good news is that the gap can be bridged, as demonstrated by the effect of curriculum changes at the university level and the impact of the training program Carnegie Mellon instituted for high school teachers. Over the course of five years, the percentage of female students enrolled in the CMU computer science school increased from 7% to 42%. The authors are quick to point out that the program they followed may not work for every institution, but the results of their work offer hope that the goal of making computer science more accessible to women is not out of reach.
I can recommend Unlocking the Clubhouse as an even-handed, complete, and well-written account of the causes of and potential solutions to the gender gap in computing.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is also the author of three online courses and twelve books (six for Microsoft Press) , including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books.