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May 1, 2013

Mind the Gap: Bridging the Gender Divide

Nicole Hemsoth

Microsoft maintains a running list of the top authors in computer science. Out of the top 100, only three are women. It’s another telling data point, one more sign of gender inequality in science, and it raises the all-important question: what can be done to address this gender disparity?

This subject is receiving attention. Yesterday, Science Writer Scott Gibson published an article highlighting the importance of encouragement and practical instruction to bridging the gender gap in computer science.

A study of current trends reflects the urgent need for action. As Gibson explains, computer and information technology (CIT) is growing at a rapid pace and will soon undergo a 22 percent workforce increase. If, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates, there are 758,800 new CIT jobs from 2010 to 2020, and the current gender gap persists as expected, these positions will predominantly be filled by male hires. The result would be that the overall number of potential jobs (and moreover typically higher-paying computer-related jobs) would be heavily biased toward males, and the CIT industry would be denied the talents of a representative portion of the female population.

And lest anyone doubts the veracity of this predicted scenario, when it comes to the gender gap, the data are not promising. From 2010 to 2011, fewer than 12 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women, according to a survey performed by the Computing Research Association called “Computing Degree and Enrollment Trends.”

Gibson interviewed two computer science professionals for the article: Amy McGovern, associate professor in the School of Computer Science and adjunct professor in the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma; and Brittany Dahl, graduate student in the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. Dahl is part of a tornado-prediction research team led by Professor Amy McGovern.

McGovern’s position as an educator provides her the platform to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and technology. She bristles when recalling how she was told at a young age that “girls don’t belong in math.”

McGovern believes it’s important to reach students at the elementary-school level or even earlier because this is the critical age at which they start internalizing society’s beliefs about gender roles.

McGovern tells Gibson: “The really big drop off happens in middle school, where the girls start wanting to conform. They like the boys a little bit more, and the boys don’t like brainy girls. And so a lot of those girls disappear out of math and science at that point. It’s really too bad. Also, I think the media don’t help, in that they portray computing as nerdy. What girl wants to be a nerd?”

This is why positive role models are so important. McGovern didn’t have to look far to find her inspiration. Her mother, a school superintendent in charge of purchasing classroom computers, was her first computer instructor. McGovern’s mother taught her to program in BASIC on a Commodore 64.

Brittany Dahl also came from a family that valued education and science. For many years, she knew she wanted to be a meteorologist and she has combined that passion with computer science. Sciences that are considered less theoretical and more practical, such as meteorology, are seeing a narrowing of the gender gap, but this just isn’t the case with most segments of computer science. However, schools such as CMU are leading the effort to bring about change.

Writes Gibson: “From 1995 to 2000, for example, the percentage of women entering the School of Computer Science (SCS) at CMU climbed from 7 percent to 42 percent. Today, the school’s women @ scs Web site is an example of how the school reaches out to females, with information, workshops mentoring programs and conferences.”

In her role as computer-science ambassador to women, McGovern’s appeal has an emotional and practical component. “You’ll never be broke and you’ll never be bored in this field,” she says. “It’s lots of fun. Stick to it. Stay at it. You can apply computing to change the world in many different ways.”

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