Friday, August 8, 2014

Google's Report on Women in Computer Science, and What it Means for Me

A couple of months ago, Google came out with a report called Women Who Choose  Computer Science — What Really Matters.  It details a study Google conducted "to identify and understand the factors that influence young women’s decisions to pursue degrees in Computer Science." The results are important to me as someone who does a lot of outreach.

Creating A+ Schools
Creating A+ Schools / Gates Foundation

According to the study, the four most influential factors when deciding to pursue computer science as a female are:
  1. Social encouragement
  2. Self perception
  3. Academic exposure
  4. Career perception
Social encouragement comes from both family and peers.  This is one reason that I see changing someone's attitude toward computer science to be a win, even if they will never consider pursuing it themselves.  At least if someone considering CS tells that now-positive-thinking person, she is more likely to say "Oh, cool!" instead of making fun.  Also interesting is how effective it is to get encouragement in extra-curricular settings, which is great for the type of outreach I tend to do.

It's not surprising that perception of one's abilities in math influence their decision to pursue CS.  What's cool to see is a confirmation that the "ultimate source" of passion comes from a love of problem solving and tinkering.  This is one aspect of CS, along with the social good you can do, that we are hoping to convey in our Gram's House project.

The report had this to say about exposure:
Early exposure to Computer Science is important because familiarity with a subject can generate interest and curiosity while establishing a sense of competency. Moreover, even a basic understanding of Computer Science provides insight into viable career paths within the field and how those careers can be leveraged to achieve personal goals.
I constantly wonder when the best time to expose girls to CS is, especially since the study showed that age of first exposure is not an influencing factor.  Middle school seems like a good place to start, since those girls are old enough to understand some interesting problems and create things with code.  If we hook them, they can choose the right courses in high school while their interest is still fresh.  But what happens when high school rolls around? Boys, cliques, popularity, competing interests... There are so many opportunities to lose them again.  I believe middle school is a good place to start, but that we need to follow up again during the high school years to reinforce the good we did earlier on.

I also believe we could be easily integrating computer science into the school subjects everyone is already taking.  The study showed that "regardless of how they were exposed, young women who had opportunities to engage in Computer Science coursework were more likely to consider a Computer Science degree than those without those opportunities." I once put together a list of how CS Unplugged activities could be used in other school subjects.  Daniel Kimball discusses similar ideas of how CS can be integrated.  Beaver Country Day School in Boston recently integrated coding into every class.  It's not impossible, and it doesn't require a stand-alone computer science class!

Exposure can come from other avenues as well.  In terms of career perceptions, the report suggests that "visibility of female role models in Computer Science and telling stories about the positive social impact careers in computing can have, can enable young women to visualize themselves in the field." This is one of the reasons for Anita's Quilt, a collection of inspirational stories from women in tech that I help with.  The stories and role models are out there, and it's now a question of how we get them to the right people.


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