What Influences Women To Pursue Computer Science
Written by Sue Gee   
Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Google Researchers recently presented the findings of a study looking at gender differences in High School students' decisions to study Computer Science.

As we have previously and repeatedly reported the proportion of women in computer science is worryingly low.

This is the starting point for a new research, authored by Hai Hong, Jennifer Wang, Jason Ravitz, Mo-Yun Lei Fong, all based at Google's Mountain View HQ, that will be published in the Proceedings of the 46th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, ACM (2015). 

Their study was motivated by the need to increase women's participation in computer science which is seen as a:

critical workforce and equity concern

and quotes the following statistics:

  • Women make up only 26% of Computer Science (CS) and Mathematical Science professionals in the US

  • Female participation in CS at degree level has declined to 18% in 2012 from a peak of 37% in the mid-1980s.

Commenting on these proportions the researchers state:

This lack of female participation in CS exacerbates a problem with labor supply shortages: the overall need for computing professionals has severely outstripped the number of graduates entering the workforce.

This is the same message we have been hearing from Code.org and its partners and it is one that Google, among others is actively trying to tackle with various positive discrimination measures. Theories abound about what puts girls and young women off STEM subjects in general and CS in particular so a survey that addresses the question directly seems welcome. 

Building on previous research, the Google team considered 91 variables from previous studies and used factor analysis to group them and logistic regression to rate their importance. Their sample, which was geographically and academically diverse across the US consisted of 1090 women and 649 men. Half were in high school and half were recent college graduates. Half were interested in or had studied computer science.

The results indicated that, as far as women are concerned the most important factors influencing decisions to a pursue CS-related college degree are social encouragement, career perception, academic exposure, and self perception and that these factors occur before college.  

Social encouragement includes positive reinforcement from family, peers, and other adults. For the high school model, it comprises 28.1% of a young woman’s decision to pursue a CS related degree. Non-family encouragement (11%) is almost as important as familial support (17%) for young women.

Career Perception  includes familiarity with and perception of computing as having diverse applications and a broad potential for positive societal impact is the second most potent factor at 27.5%.

Academic Exposure Women who had opportunities to learn about computers were more likely to consider CS-related degrees than those without opportunities. Participation in CS courses and activities accounts for 22.4% of the factors influencing girls to pursue a CS-related degree.

Self Perception Girls’ interest in and perceptions of their own proficiency in Mathematics and problem-solving significantly influence their wanting to pursue a computing-related education. In the high school model, this perception comprises 17.1% of the explainable factors. Among college students who had studied CS, women are significantly more likely than men (57% vs. 41%) to agree with the statement “I love math.”

The researchers were pleased to find that factors that could not be changed were relatively insignificant, stating:  

Our most heartening finding is the limited role that uncontrollable factors play in influencing the pursuit of a CS degree. For example, for high school girls, household income and ethnicity contribute only 4.9% to the explainable factors.

Based on their findings, the researchers conclude:

The four factors most related to female participation in computing fields are actionable.

They recommend the following to help get more girls into CS:

Social Encouragement Provide encouragement and support for participating in CS activities.

Career Perceptions Find role models and mentors and introduce broad applications of CS.

• Academic Exposure: Find opportunities to be creators, not just consumers, of technology; if opportunities don’t exist in the community or school, create something.

Self Perception Help develop building and spatial skills, problem-solving, resourcefulness, and creativity; offer a truly introductory CS course without pre-requisites. 

Organizations like Girls Who Code are already acting on these recommendations, by establishing computer clubs and  a summer immersion program exclusively for girls.  However to achieve gender parity in 2020 which is the organization's aim, more intervention is needed.




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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 31 March 2015 )