Monday, November 15, 2004

Fewer women joining information technology

Following up on a previous piece of mine, the IT Management article linked from the title above reports on the declining number of women in the IT workforce and getting CS degrees. Main points are:
  • Women are about 20% of the IT workforce.
  • Women receive fewer than 28% of CS bachelors degrees, down from 37% in 1984.
  • In (other?) engineering fields, women make up only 19% of graduates.
  • CS is the only field in which the number of women has decreased over time.

The article raises some factors that may be contributing to this:

  • Low expectations in K-12 for girls' performance in math.
  • Young girls are especially unfamiliar with career choices, and so from an early age identify with "traditional" options, such as teacher, secretary, or nurse.
  • The popular media may affect girls more than boys, leading girls to have unrealistic expectations about their future careers. A recent Lemelson-MIT survey shows that, for teen girls, 32% had career goals of becoming a famous actress (highest ranked goal), 24% wanted to be a famous musician, 22% wanted to be a famous athlete, and 17% wanted to be President of the US. "Inventor" was at the bottom of the list, at 10%. This contrasts with boys, who ranked athlete first (42%), then inventor (19%), actor (18%), musician (16%), and President (13%).

However, these don't explain the decrease in women in IT, because I don't think that many of these factors have changed since 1984. Perhaps the question being asked is the problem. Rather than asking why the number of women in IT is decreasing, we might ask why the number increased in the late '70s/early '80s. Meanwhile, there are things that educators and parents can do. Educators need to do more outreach targeted at teen girls, using examples that show, for instance, that computer games can be more varied (and interesting to them) than killing people and stealing their cars. They need to be motivated to see that they can contribute something unique and important to the profession.

As far as parents are concerned, I suggest two things:

  1. Get involved with your daughters' education. Talk to their teachers. Make sure you know what they're learning and how they feel about their classes, especially math classes. If it seems that their teachers aren't demanding enough of them because they're girls, make sure their teachers know that you'd like them to demand at least as good performance as the boys.
  2. Turn off the damn TV. Academic performance is inversely related to amount of TV watched. My own daughters are only allowed to watch about an hour of entertainment-oriented TV per week --- a "TV night", with popcorn and their choice of a kids' movie or any kids' show on the TiVo (Arthur, Magic School Bus, Anne of Green Gables, etc). When there's an interesting nature, science, or arts show, they get another hour, on the weekend. That's it.

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