While the number of women pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees has increased in recent years, women still make up an extremely small percentage of STEM professions. With computer science in particular, the discrepancy between the number of men and women in computer science professions is astounding. In an attempt to understand this gender gap, Google conducted a study to find out what might be contributing to the limited numbers of young women pursuing computer science.
But First, What is Computer Science?
What is computer science and what can you do with it? A Wikipedia search on computer science broadly defines it as the study of the principles and the use of computers, with a focus on implementation and application of computational systems. Right. So what is it really?
Many definitions exist out there that are abstract and potentially confusing. Computer science is so vast a discipline with a wide variety of applications that it’s really hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. And maybe this is why many have misconceptions about what it is or what career paths are available.
What computer science really boils down to is the application of computer programming to solve real world problems. Think artificial intelligence. Think information science. Think human-computer interaction. Think computer and software engineering. You can be a computer scientist, a programmer, a developer, or an engineer. There are countless fields in which computer science is applied and countless jobs for those pursuing the discipline.
Even so, women still make up only 26% of computer science and mathematical science professionals in the United States according to the National Science Board, and only 18% of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees are conferred to women.
Why the vast gender gap?
Factors Influencing Decisions to Pursue Computer Science
While it’s difficult to determine the exact cause of this gender gap, Google conducted a study in 2014 of high school females to determine main contributing factors that influence a young woman’s decision to pursue a computer science degree. This study wanted to identify what areas are important in helping young women explore- and ultimately pursue- their interests in computer science. From this study, four main contributing factors were found: social encouragement, career perception, academic exposure, and self perception.
Social Encouragement: In Google’s study, social encouragement was a critical factor in young women’s decisions to pursue computer science. Encouragement and positive reinforcement from family, teachers, and peers of an interest in computer science and any related endeavors to the discipline greatly impacts a woman’s decision to pursue their interest.
Career Perception: A young woman’s perception of computer science as a career and its diverse applications is the second most important influencing factor for whether a woman chooses to pursue computer science. Not knowing what computer science is, not understanding it as a discipline, and having a flawed perception of how to apply the discipline in a career discourages women from considering computer science as a viable career option.
Academic Exposure: Early exposure to computer sciences fosters familiarity with the discipline, which in turn generates interest and curiosity and also contributes to establishing competency. A crucial part of early exposure is having access to opportunities that help convert interests into skills. Hands-on experience with an interest and the chance to develop new skills is a huge contributing factor to whether young women pursue computer science.
Self Perception: Last but definitely not least, a young woman’s perception that she has skills that can be translated into a successful career is an important factor to whether she pursues those skills. Confidence and interest can be built through exposure and social encouragement. If a young woman has confidence in her abilities, she will be more likely to continue using those abilities.
Learning How to Code
Google’s study indicated that early exposure and access to opportunities in computer science play a critical role in whether a student pursues computer science, and there are many resources out there that make learning how to code, or computer programming, fun, easy, and accessible.
Similarly, MIT’s Scratch online program teaches beginners to computer science how to program stories, games, and animations. Scratch was designed for young people to learn how to think creatively while also learning about computer programming. On Code.org, students can code their own mobile apps, code their own games, and take courses on different programming languages.
For a more formal introduction to computer science and programming, edX, an online hub of free courses offered by top schools, offers several online computer science courses. Introduction to Computer Science, offered by Harvard through edX.org, is a great introduction to what computer science is, how it can be applied, and provides students with hands-on experience with programming in different languages. These courses are open to anyone with an Internet connection and time to devote to the reading, assignments, and discussions facilitated by the online course community.
Additionally, to begin tackling the problem of the gender gap in computer science, Google in the last year launched a “Made with Code” campaign aimed at increasing the diversity in computer science through young women. The campaign introduces young women to different programming languages through fun, creative projects and creates a community of young women and role models who have learned how to code.
The above resources are great ways to get teens to explore computer science. Regardless of gender, it's important to encourage teens to pursue their interests and skills and to foster an environment in which learning opportunities are available.