Thursday, March 15, 2012

Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

Computer Science has an embarrassing problem: it attracts a much smaller percentage of females than other science & engineering disciplines. This was not always the case; the world's first computer programmer was a woman, and in the late 70s and 80s women were not uncommon in CS departments. So why did they leave? The answer must explain what makes Computer Science as it is now so different from Mathematics or Electrical Engineering. It's not the subject matter; no, the most significant distinguishing characteristic of Computer Science is that almost no one becomes an Electrical Engineer or a theoretical Mathematician in 6th grade - almost everyone in those fields starts out on an equal footing - but children can program. The barrier to entry for experience with the tools of Computer Science is low, and a 6-year-old can get it. And thus, when I ask women I know why they didn't consider Computer Science in college, I get answers like "I would've been competing with people like you who've been doing it since you were kids," and "I might've if I'd known how fun it could be." Computer Science, more than other fields, suffers from gender discrimination in childhood. Fixing the imbalance will require not just better college recruitment, but changing how we raise our children.