The subject of women (or the lack thereof) in computing has been in the news a lot recently. At least in my circles a story by NPR on the origins of the gender imbalance in computer science was popular listening, and Mark Guzdial wrote an important follow-up post discussing the enrollment trends that helped to create the initial barriers and suggesting that we are headed down the same path today. As much as I appreciate the attention that this is getting and think that talking about it is a positive and crucial step, I also have to admit that I find this information profoundly depressing. I took my first computer science class in 1983, which means that the gender imbalance has existed as long as I’ve been in the field. It also shows few signs of any improvement outside of a select set of institutions.
To give just one example, this year a colleague and I created a linked-courses learning community for introductory development majors (computer science, computer game development, and information assurance and security engineering) that targeted women and men of color. We recruited students for the learning community from the time they were admitted to DePaul, and my colleague in particular spent tens of hours working to get students enrolled. The end result: we have five women in an introductory programming class of 28 students. While it’s encouraging that just five women has had a noticeable impact in the classroom, it still feels unsatisfying to have done all that work to end up with so few female students.
To not fall into a funk about this, I find that I hold onto the small victories that I see. One of the small victories in my life is my daughter. As a child of two computer scientists, she has grown up believing that technology is as natural a part of life as breathing. We got her an email account around the same time she learned to write, and she was one of the few students in her technology class to be very motivated to learn touch typing since she long envied our typing skills. She’s played computer games since the age of 3 or 4, and she self identifies as a geek, even going so far as to defend geek identity whenever possible. As far as she’s concerned, computer science is absolutely a place for her.
So it makes me happy when things align to confirm her beliefs. Yesterday I held a gaming party for students in the linked-courses learning community. In the picture below you see my daughter sitting with two women from the class playing on the Wii:
The only people who chose to play computer games were women, and my daughter declared that it was the most fun she’s ever had at a party. But the thing I enjoyed most about the whole thing was the last 30 minutes. By then there was only one male student left, so there were a lot of female voices discussing the game mechanics of Mario Party and whether the perspective mode is a good thing or not. As far as my daughter is concerned, that’s precisely what any group of women would want to spend their afternoon doing. I for one I hope that she never changes her mind about that.