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Attracting Young Women and Minorities To Computing

As part of my work on the CSTA Leadership Cohort, a Southern New Jersey Shore Chapter of CSTA has been created. On Tuesday, March 26th Dr. David Klappholz from Stevens Institute of Technology spoke to our chapter at its monthly meeting regarding ways to attract young women and minorities to computing majors. His talk was titled The Real Projects for Real Clients Course ( RPRCC) Initiative: Attracting Young Women to Computing Majors: An ACM-W Project.

Dr. Klappholtz spoke to the group of high school teachers and college professors that were present about the overall low numbers of females in the computing fields and how the female point of view is necessary in the design and development of everything from consumer products to defense related systems. It is feared that the rate of production of software development will be far lower than necessary to fill job openings over the next five to fifteen years, especially given the baby boomer generation will be retiring soon.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a large increase in the need for B.S. and M.S. computing graduates in the next decade. The largest untapped pool of potential computing majors and, eventually, computing professionals, is science- and math-talented high school students, but only about 10% of entering undergraduate majors in computing majors are female. Despite the many initiatives aimed at attracting young women, the number of female computing majors keeps dropping.

Gender equity in computing has long been a national goal advanced by those concerned with fairness and by those who know that the female point of view improves the design and development of software systems. Unfortunately, though, the percentage of young women entering computing-related majors keeps falling, and the female dropout rate is higher than the very high male dropout rate

The intellectual underpinning of the RPRCC Initiative is a 35 year psychological Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) that followed 3,000 + MPYs from middle school into middle age. They focused on understanding the career and life paths of the MPYs. SMPY discovered that MPY females chose STEM fields involving organic things (fields involving people, helping people). Female MPYs have considerably higher verbal skills than MPY males, accounting for their preference for inter-personal interaction, rather than solo work. MPY males chose STEM fields involving inorganic things (fields involving machines, software development, computer hardware, physics, engineering, chemistry, abstractions).

The point of the initiative is to recruit young women into and to retain them in computing-related undergraduate majors. Only 30% of the typical software development project involves solo inorganic work (writing code). The majority of the remaining 70% has a highly organic, teamwork and interpersonal interaction based nature. Women are better at listening to what their client is saying and understanding what they want. This is especially true if the software's client/customer is a socially relevant agency (such as an adoption agency, a child-care agency, or a poverty agency).

The RPRCC Initiative is a based on courses in which students work in teams – initially on the 70% to produce real software for real clients. There are three aspects to the initative: The High School- Level (for recruitment), the Pre-Choice of Major (for recruitment), and the Post Choice of Major (for retention). For more information, contact Dr. David Klappholz at davidk6@gmail.com

Debbie Klipp
CSTA Leadership Cohort


At the risk of sounding incredibly sexist- I have to say that from my personal experience studying Computer Science (I'm taking classes through an online university, so there's not as much interaction with fellow students as would be typical of a traditional campus-based school), it seems that the number of female class members has dwindled with each successive semester.

My limited personal experience with this matter (I haven't conducted any scientific studies or anything, but I've got friends in Comp Sci courses elsewhere, and we all talk about this- it's a major issue) is that the women don't seem to find the subject matter quite as engaging as the men. Call me crazy, but the whole working with machines and numbers thing, rather than human beings and tangibles, seems to be a major turn off for the other gender.

Some subjects just resonate better with one or the other sex- there might be nothing to be done that can "even things out", although I too agree that it would better if there were more parity!

Dave - a lot of people in computer science courses have experienced to what you describe. I recommend checking out a book called "Unlocking the Clubhouse" by Jane Margolis. It talks about how a number of factors - including social isolation, unfair stereotypes about ability, and a male-centric culture - cause women who are interested in computer science to leave the field during college. Stereotypes about women not liking numbers and not enjoying computational thinking can have a large effect on making them feel unwelcome, and eventually causing them to leave.

See this old kids book from the 1970's that talks about things girls do and things boys do (http://j.mp/j4h91C). The gender stereotyping in it seems ridiculous; but when you suggest that boys do computer science and girls don't ("Some subjects just resonate better with one or the other sex"), you're essentially saying the same thing that's in the book.

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