13. Prospects for Change

Caroline Clarke Hayes

Women are scarce only in some aspects of computing, and there have always been the majority of the low-pay end of the, a fact that is obscured by thinking of computing as just one profession. The true situation is complex and layered, and each layer has its own story and evolution, which this volume has identified and examined. There are a number of different possible explanations for the shrinking proportion of women in segments of the computing field such as undergraduate computer science education and white-collar professions such as software developer (programmer) or systems analyst. Here we will explore the strengths and weaknesses of three hypotheses: a lack of female role models; an unappealing, masculine nerd culture; and negative, masculine stereotypes of computing.

The argument of a lack of female role models in computer science is somewhat disproven by the fact that the proportion of women faculty members in computer sciences has been increasing for the past 20 years, yet the number of women in undergraduate computer science majors has fallen dramatically. It would seem that increasing faculty role models alone is insufficient to increase women undergraduates. Similarly, masculine nerd culture alone is also an insufficient explanation, since similar engineering fields are also characterized by a masculine nerd culture and have seen either steady increases in women’s participation (such as biological sciences) or have comparable drop-off rates to computer science (such as chemical engineering), and computer science actually has higher proportions of female faculty members than psychology and biological sciences.

It would seem then that computer science is no more hostile to women tan other STEM fields. While there are strong cases presented in chapters 8, 9, and 12 of this book about the ways that newspapers and advertisements have created, perpetuated, and modified computing images and stereotypes in the public awareness, possibly turning increasing numbers of women away from computing careers due to the focus on negative male-centered images. Yet these images have been around for more than 20 years, so clearly more research will be needed to determine the timing, prevalence, and nature of computing images in the media.

"If the popular image of computer science is a significant factor in the gender gap, then changing or modifying the popular images may be a crucial strategy. While it may be difficult to erase the already established computer geek stereotype, it may be possible to modify it or augment it with other more positive images of computing."

It is fortunate that people can hold multiple and even contradictory stereotypes in their mind at once, and there have at various points been many different stereotypes of computing coexisting, like the mid1990s image of the "evil hacker," the nerd, and the rich, young entrepreneur. The three types of discourse outline in Chapter 8 are all approaches based on existing gender stereotypes, including the so-called gender-blind approach. Gender-independent approaches are those that make no assumptions about the interests and backgrounds of each gender and have been successfully employed in cases such as modifying the admissions process at Carnegie Mellon University for their computer science program. They removed the requirement for prior programming experience and provided background classes to even out differences, since men were more likely at the time to have prior experience, and the end result has been good for women and men alike.

Another gender-independent approach is in creating new images of computing that do not play on gender stereotypes, for example emphasizing the human and social aspects of the field, but not making the assumption that only women are interested in these aspects. Art and public images are an important factor for changing the perception of computing, as they reach people on both an emotional and concrete level. It is important for young people to be exposed to positive and gender-independent images of computing in a variety of places (not just in school) and on a regular basis, because through exposure attitudes can be changed. Numerical change is not the only measure, cultural changes are equally important, whether they are national, local, or even just in one computing department or group.

"It is equally important to change the impressions that men have of computer science if one is to change the overall culture or the impressions held by society as a whole."

13. Prospects for Change