My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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gender gap in perception of computer science

“New Image for Computing” recently released a report in their first wave to understand the image of computing among youth. Funded by WGBH and ACM, this report examines both race/ethnicity and sex-based differences in perceptions of computing. What they found was that there is little race/ethnicity-based differences in how youth perceive CS but there are HUGE gender based differences in perception.

While 67% of all boys rated computer science as a “very good” or “good” career choice, only 9% of girls rated it “very good” and 17% as “good.” Digging down deeper, it is fascinating to note that there’s a gender gap between boys and girls when it comes to feeling that “being passionate about your job” is “extremely important” (F: 78%, M: 64%), “earning a high salary” is “extremely important” (F: 39%, M: 50%), and “having the power to do good and doing work that makes a difference” is “extremely important” (F: 56%, M: 47%). These all play into how these youth perceive computer science and computing-driven fields.

The summary of key findings is:

  • Most college-bound males, regardless of race/ethnicity, have a positive opinion of computing and computer science as a career or a possible major.

  • College-bound females are significantly less interested than boys are in computing; girls associate computing with typing, math, and boredom.
  • College-bound African American and Hispanic teens, regardless of gender, are more likely than their white peers to be interested in computing, although for girls the overall interest is extremely low.
  • Teens interested in studying computer science associate computing with words like “video games,” “design,” “electronics,” “solving problems,” and “interesting.”
  • The strongest positive driver towards computer science or an openness to a career in computing is “having the power to create and discover new things.”

Computer science is still dominated by men. The computer industry is still dominated by men. In order to combat these issues, we need to get to the crux of the issue. We need to address both the perception of computing as well as the very real issues that young people raise regarding the realities of life in the computing industry. For more information, check out the full report.

(Disclosure: I am on the advisory board of New Image for Computing.)

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14 comments to gender gap in perception of computer science

  • anon

    Are boys and girls correctly predicting their future reactions? Maybe boys will actually be happier than girls, given that the fields are the way they are. Or is one of the genders wrong, in which case, are boys over-optimistic about the appeal of computer science, or are girls unduly pessimistic?

    Of course, since we can’t predict what CS will be like in a decade or two, this question may not even make sense.

  • danah,

    Where in the report does it indicate that girls associate computers with typing, math, and boredom? I looked for this but couldn’t find it. I don’t think that’s true at all (well, except maybe the boredom part). There isn’t nearly as large a gender spread in mathematics as in computer science, which indicates that the problem isn’t necessarily the math involved. My personal feeling is that it’s the attitude in computer science.

    neha

  • Neha – it’s in the summary of the report (page 17) but the detailed data is not provided.

  • I didn’t find anything that fell out of place with what I see in the K-12 classroom. I made a wise remark about students not wanting to create a program to solve a problem, but the survey is probably right considering the number of kids who want to compete in programming tournaments.

    Having an actual person to model behavior is wonderful. We had a female African American programmer teaching for two years and it was wonderful. She was experienced (IBM and Motorola) and a fabulous role model. This year, we seemed to turn a corner with more girls in the classes, but the teacher fell seriously ill. Now, we’ll never know how it could have turned out for the kids.

  • You know what I mean about an “actual person” right? The obvious disconnect between expectations in the survey when you ask kids who don’t know doctors or lawyers but do know nurses and teachers.

  • Your readers might be interested in the Rapunsel Project, which is trying to help overcome this gap:

    Rapunsel is single-player dance game designed to teach computer programming to 10-12 year olds. The project was started with the goal of empowering young girls to learn programming as a way of addressing the critical shortage of women in technology related careers and degree programs. By giving players the opportunity to explore coding through scaffolded challenges in a playful world, we hope to empower young people to learn about computer science. It is a cross platform, downladable game created in the Torque game engine.

  • Wow, that’s pretty mindblowing. If those results hold in Europe, it would explain a substantial part of the gender gap in free software – about half of it, I think. (The ratio is something like 20:1 or 30:1; a 4× or 6× difference only accounts for half of that, leaving another 5× difference to be explained by factors like discrimination.)

    Hey, let Beatrice and me know if you’re ever in Buenos Aires!

  • I posted on similar issues back in march, and was amazed by the response, both in the comments and privately. I was stunned not by how many people recognize it as a problem, but how many people don’t – the prejudice that women have to deal with in computer science, even once they’ve taken the rare step of choosing it as a career, is immense. For a seemingly-progressive field, what with flattening of hierarchies and social media innovation, it’s odd that it’s primarily the domain of white males.

  • Rich Kilmer

    I recommend reading “The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap” published last year. Susan Pinker, psychologist and journalist, has compiled a rather fascinating set of information on this topic. We had a recent blow-up in the Ruby/Rails community with gender sensitivity and this book really helped me navigate that and understand a bit some of why these gaps may exist. For folks that think its all about male dominance and not about female choice, you should look seriously at this book.

  • evmaiden

    read the post of thought of this video from 1st grade class
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhzRSGVBWh4
    its been out a while but if you haven’t seen it is worth a view

  • Danah,

    We have just released a study in Canada that parallels some of these findings. See http://www.ccict.ca/press.html

    The fact that girls are far less interested in computing than boys is well known, and of course reflected in the enrollment statistics. This subject has been extensively researched. It’s a big problem, but we pretty much know why it exists. On the other hand, the cohort’s overall disinclination to enter the field is less well understood. These two studies provide some new information about that.

    We found that nearly half of Canada�s grade 9 & 10 students are neutral or unsure about the appeal of an IT-related career. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed were unable to name a job in IT. And most of the jobs that the others named were traditional occupations like programmer, technician, or Web designer. Parents and guidance counselors are equally unsure about the nature of today�s IT careers.

    But the survey also produced some exciting positive findings: students who perceive that an IT career is interesting, fun, cool and creative are more likely to want to pursue a career in the field. This bodes extremely well for turning the tide on enrollments, since today�s specialized, multidisciplinary � high growth � occupations are as interesting, fun, cool and creative as can be.

  • How about this for a new image idea for computing? ? ?

    http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2009/06/bare-metal-recovery.html

    Brian O’ Hanlon

  • Steve

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but there seems to be somewhat of a rush to ignore the obvious. There is a cultural stereotype that females are fuzzy-headed. I.e. that they are creatures of emotion rather than logic. I would assume that this stereotype stems from the traditional biologically based role of females as child-bearers and child nurturers. I have even heard it asserted anecdotally that the hormones of pregnancy appear to cause fuzzy-headedness in women who do not otherwise exhibit this trait.

    Since the entire structure of computer technology is based on logic and precision, there is unlikely to be gender parity within the computer-related professions until the gender stereotypes of logic versus emotion are constructively addressed.

    Note that this analysis does not apply to Macs, as the Mac is intended by design to be a computer that is not “really a computer” in the normal sense of that term, and is marketed to a user base who wish to enjoy the benefits of digital technology without the necessity of being precise or logical.

    (It would be interesting if there is research on gender choice between Macs and regular computers).

    -Steve

  • Roger

    “having the power to create and discover new things.”

    This is what drove me toward computer science in high school and still drives me after having obtained a masters in computer science

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