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Gender gap: still growing?

I'm a couple weeks behind on this, but a recent article in the Boston Globe says that female college student are increasingly less likely to major in computer science.

Born in contemporary times, free of the male-dominated legacy common to other sciences and engineering, computer science could have become a model for gender equality. In the early 1980s, it had one of the highest proportions of female undergraduates in science and engineering. And yet with remarkable speed, it has become one of the least gender-balanced fields in American society.

In a year of heated debate about why there aren't more women in science, the conversation has focused largely on discrimination, the conflicts between the time demands of the scientific career track and family life, and what Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers famously dubbed ''intrinsic aptitude."

But the history of computer science demonstrates that more elusive cultural factors can have a major impact on a field's ability to attract women.

As the popularity of computer science soared in the first half of the 1980s, many university departments became overburdened and more competitive, some professors argue. Introductory classes were taught in a way that emphasized technical minutiae over a broader sense of what was important and exciting about the field, a style catering to the diehard -- and overwhelmingly male -- techies rather than curious new recruits. The last thing educators, besieged by students, worried about was attracting more, so they didn't see the need to combat the image that took root in popular culture of the male computer geek with poor hygiene and glazed eyes.

The article suggests that if schools don't start trying to explain the "big picture" behind computer science and make it sound more appealing soon, the United States will be in trouble:

Though the enormous impact of computers on society makes the development of computer science at the college level unique in some ways, some scientists believe it offers a warning to other sciences as well. In fact, something similar happened in physics after World War II, when the atomic bomb catapulted the subject to preeminence in society, according to David Kaiser, a physicist and historian of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Facing a sudden and dramatic rise in enrollments, physics departments grew less intimate and coped with the crowds by teaching the subject in a more routinized and less creative way.

The percentage of women studying physics, already low, dropped dramatically and stayed in the single digits for decades. Eventually the physics bubble burst for men as well, and today a high percentage of the country's physicists are foreign-born.

Some computer scientists fear that they may be going in the same direction. They view the dearth of women as symptomatic of a larger failure in their field, which has recently become less attractive to promising young men, as well. Women are ''the canaries in the mine," said Harvard computer science professor Barbara J. Grosz.

In the wake of the dot-com bust, the number of new computer science majors in 2004 was 40 percent lower than in 2000, according to the Computing Research Association. The field has seen ups and downs before, and some think the numbers for men will soon improve at least a bit. But the percentage of undergraduate majors who are female has barely budged in a dozen years.

The shortage of new computer scientists threatens American leadership in technological innovation just as countries such as China and India are gearing up for the kind of competition the United States has never before faced.

Some schools are organizations are trying to come up with creative solutions.

Introductory classes zeroed in on programming and other technical aspects of the field, rather than explaining big ideas or talking about how computing can impact society, many professors say. That approach led to a misconception among students that computer science is the same thing as computer programming. Computer scientists say that view shortchanges the field, which is far broader and more intellectually rich. It is applied math and design, they say; it is about modeling human behavior and thinking about the simplest way to accomplish a complex task.

When [Diane] Souvaine joined the Tufts faculty in 1998, she was dismayed that there were few female students in the introductory course. So she and a colleague designed a new freshman seminar focused on problem-solving and real-life applications.

On a recent afternoon, Soha Hassoun, who is now teaching that class, lit up a drab cinder-block classroom with her boisterous questions. The topic of the day was how to get a computer to determine whether a particular point is inside or outside a geometric shape.

Hassoun's focus was on logical thinking, and she set aside only a few minutes for students to write their answers in computer code.

''Here's the big question. Why do we care about this?" she asked rhetorically, then went on to explain that that same method could help determine which diabetes tests are the best predictors of the disease. The class would later work on just that task.

The first time Souvaine taught the freshman seminar, there were 14 men and 14 women, and seven of each gender went on to major in the field. The number of female undergraduate majors remains low, but Souvaine sees reason for hope. About 30 percent of students now in lower-level classes are women.

On a broader level, the National Science Foundation will soon announce a new set of grants to universities, high schools, and industry groups with creative ideas for attracting women to computer science. A two-year-old organization called the National Center for Women & Information Technology has designated several schools and groups, including the Girl Scouts, to identify solutions.

"In computer science, a growing gender gap", Marcella Bombardieri, Boston Globe, December 18, 2005