How come maths, despite being widely regarding as a masculine subject, is studied by an almost equal proportion of men and women, yet computing has such a disproportionate gender balance?
I recently came across this paper by Professor Paul De Palma of Gonzaga university in which he analyses why this is and what it can teach us about how to make computing more accessible to women. I think he hits the nail on the head.
Get rid of the ‘messiness’
Prof De Palma deduces that women are drawn to the precision and logical nature of maths, but are put off by the messiness of computing.
I still get frustrated at how complicated it can be just to get a work environment up and running; to ensure everything is properly configured, dependencies are installed and paths correctly set – when all I want to do is start coding! All this with bloated software tools and clumsy IDEs creates a barrier to entry which puts off all but the most confident students.
It doesn’t need to be this way. The first course of my MSc was ‘Programming in C’ by Neill Campbell and was an excellent way to be introduced to programming. All we needed was a text editor, a command line terminal and a compiler. The problems were short and algorithmic and made me feel like I was solving little puzzles. I was hooked.
So what’s the problem?
Firstly, that instead of this simple, low-level approach, students are often taught high-level, object-oriented languages which are a whole lot more hassle to get up and running, and are required to use tools that are overly-complicated for the task. The words ‘nut’ and ‘sledgehammer’ come to mind…
Secondly, by the time students get to university, it’s too late. The girls are already disengaged and the boys have already taught themselves how to programme. The elegance and logic of coding needs to be promoted at school in a simple, accessible way.
As usual, the key difference seems to be confidence. As Prof de Palma points out:
‘The key to successful mastery in this environment is… the confidence to press forward with a set of tools that one only partially understands’
And as many studies have shown, girls tend to underrate their abilities and are therefore less likely to have the confidence to persevere through the entry barriers.
It’s not all about tinkering
Prof De Palma also asserts that many boys spend their childhoods tinkering with gadgets, and often this is what leads them into engineering and computing.
This can lead to a misconception that computing is all about hardware tinkering and can result in the more theoretical, algorithmic side being overlooked, which makes girls who are more mathematically inclined lose interest.
While the tinkering approach is important for certain aspects of computing, it’s perfectly possible to be an excellent programmer without wishing to delve into hardware.
Only a small proportion of females choose engineering because they enjoy tinkering. So perhaps it’s time to emphasise the other aspects of the subject, and maybe catch the attention of more women.
Many people acknowledge the elegance and beauty of maths, and I think the same applies to coding. Because I was fortunate enough to see this, I was stubborn enough to push through the messiness. But what about the girls who aren’t so lucky? We could be losing out on a wealth of talent for no good reason.
Prof De Palma provides five ways to tackle the problem, which you can read about here. If they had been implemented at school, I think I would have been attracted to computer science much earlier.
Are your experiences coherent with Prof De Palma’s observations? Mine certainly are. Or are you a girl who got into computing through a love of tinkering? Do you think that a more mathematical approach to teaching computing could help address the gender imbalance? Lend me your thoughts.