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Gender and Race Issues in Computing

On several mailing lists that I monitor when the issue of gender and/or race is brought up there is a group that responds that any attempt to increase the percentage of women or underrepresented minorities in computing would be disastrous. They typically seem to think that this means "watering down" the content, or forcing people to study something that they aren't really interested in and don't have the aptitude for. They also seem to be under the impression that there are no barriers to studying computing.

They couldn't be more wrong. As Jane Margolis points out in her new book "Stuck in the Shallow End" there are many barriers to computing, especially for under-represented minorities and women. The biggest barrier highlighted in the book is the lack of access to high quality computing courses in most high schools. Often only private schools and high-end public schools offer computing courses that teach problem solving and critical thinking instead of the cut and paste type of learning found in some low end computing courses. Even when a high quality course is offered, access to it is often limited by the misconception that only white and Asian males have an aptitude for computing. Teachers, administrators, and counselors often perpetuate this myth.

One of the stories in the book is about a female student with excellent math grades and an interest in computing who gets placed in a low-end computing course instead of Advanced Placement computer science by her counselor. She isn't even informed that the AP CS course exists. I have heard of similar problems. A teacher once told me that she had a girl in middle school who was on the robot competition team and excelled at programming, but her high school counselor wouldn't let her sign up for AP CS. The counselor told her it, "wasn't for her" and "not something she needed for college." Her parents had to demand that she be allowed to take it.

One of the saddest parts of the book is that teachers and administrators claim that the students at a majority minority school aren't interested in computing courses, but interviews with students at the school show that there are many who are interested. I have seen similar attitudes in Georgia. There is a teacher at a majority minority school who has a master's degree in computer science and who has been teaching an introductory programming class. When I visited his class the students (all under-represented minorities) showed me some amazing animations they had built in Alice, and they were also learning Media Computation in Java. But, when I asked if the teacher would offer AP CS he said his principal wouldn't let him because the principal said, "these kids aren't going to college and something like Cisco or A+ would be better for them."

Women and under-represented minorities often have less experience in computing, but this doesn't mean that they have less aptitude. When Carnegie Mellon University changed their admission requirements to give less weight to previous programming experience they were able to greatly increase the percentage of women in computing at CMU (see Unlocking the Clubhouse, also from Jane Margolis).

Let's not blame the victims of our educational system for their lack of access to and experience with computing. Let's instead try to provide high quality computing courses for all students. And, let's work to educate everyone that computing isn't just for white and Asian males.

Barb Ericson
CSTA Board


When I was teaching in a private school one of the best students (not just one of the best female students) I ever had was pushed into taking yet another year of her second non-English language rather than AP CS. Guidance is a 4-letter word to me sometimes.

Thank you for a timely submission. I couldn't help but to reflect back to the early 1990's, when I worked at the MIT AI Lab. I was fortunate enough to know Fanya Montalvo, who wrote extensively about barriers to women at the AI Lab. I recall thinking that this problem, surely, would be solved in a few years. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and worse has come to pass.

I have worked very hard over the last seven years to recruit and keep female and minority students in all of my Computer Science classes, but especially in my AP classes. After all: Science thrives on diversity. But, of all of the challenges that I confront on a daily basis, I honestly believe the question of diversity is the most difficult, but the most promising. And you're right: it's not the teacher in the classroom (usually). It is systemic, it is cultural. American culture clings onto this stereotype of computing and mathematics that is embarrassing and counterproductive.

I teach in what you described as a "high-end Public School." A big part of my job is promoting Computer Science as part of the school "leadership." So often discussions of access, getting more students into the AP program, focus on African American, Hispanic, and non-white students. Whenever I bring up the lack of female students in Computer Science (and Mathematics) the point is tacitly dismissed; after all, female students are invisible under the finely-crafted No Child Left Alive law.

Because this problem is cultural, appeals to logic and rational thought will fail. We need, as a community, to change the perception of the "man in the street." Unfortunately, few, if any, of us are skilled in the art of public opinion.

Perhaps we need to hire people who are?

Thanks again for a great article!


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