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August 03, 2005


Jeff P

OK, so Bill does not have an answer to the question of how to get more women into computer science. What is the answer? I don't know.

I might guess that women are scared off before they start. Whereas in mathematics, all students are required to have some mathematics. When some women take the classes and realize that they do like math and are good at it, they may choose to stick with it. Like green eggs and ham.

If no classes which are labeled as the fundamentals of computer science are required in the majority of high schools (I have no numbers, but I suspect), then women never have the chance to like it.

I guess that men, when in high school / college, somehow more associate with society's view of what a career in computer science is like.

Suresh Venkat

Nice screed, and I really liked the last bit about why we do computer science. I might just appropriate it (with attribution of course) for my web site if you don't mind


Speaking of public perception of CS - here in Germany, when people ask me what I do, I used to stick to one of two straightforward answers.

First one basically says 'I am a computer scientist' - Programming, Machines, Code, etc.
Second one is 'I am a mathmatician.' - theorems, proving, puzzling, deep stuff.

Usual answers either: 'Oh, yeah, recently I had this problem, you know, and in my Windows I had a popup that said ... and the Media Player didn't ... while the harddisk did ... - can you fix it ?'. Well - most likely (if it's Win) - no! Most of the time it's broken and I am not (and do not want to be) able to read Windows Error Codes in raw form. The kind of person giving this answer normally belongs to the Damnit!-party.

Another usual answer: 'Uhhh - I was always bad in math.' So far so good - conversation's over. 'Theoretical computer scientist' tends to have the same effect. Most people here are in the "Boring"- and Be-Afraid"-corners.

Recently, I tried a third alternative by just saying 'I am an algorithm designer' (or Algorithmiker in German). This was a hint from my advisor, and that really works better. People usually do not know too much about what an algorithm is, and what an algorithm designer does. So they tend to be interested. In a few cases, however, the impact was so strong that people use it as a nickname for me...

So far there's almost never been a 'Wow, I just saw/heard/read somehting about this, it must be really cool!'. That kind of public perception surely doesn't help attracting women...

The Great Gazoo

"I would hire them right then."

you know....I don't think anyone has finished all of the problems in Art of CS. Not even Knuth because, ding ding ding, many of the problems are unsolved research type questions.


"There aren't many stirring stories of heroic derring-do in which the protagonist saves the world and/or gets laid thanks to the well-timed development of a more efficient word processor file format translator."

Darn, the truth is out. Expect enrollment to continue going down.

At its worst CS is the envious little brother of mathematics. At its best it's endless source of amazement, as you put it so well.


Didier, a TV show about computer scientists doesn't have to mimic a 007 movie. It only needs to dispel the notion that a computer scientist is a really boring white guy who sits in his white lab coat all alone in front of his computer for hours at a time. One of the most beloved characters on Law & Order, played by Jerry Orbach, was Detective Lennie Brisco, a divorced father of an alcholic daughter who never spoke to him. A TV show about computer scientists just has to tell stories about *real people* solving *neat problems* so there is no more association with that damn white lab coat.


I could say pretty much the exact same things about Physical Chemists.


Who does wear those white lab coats, anyhow? My high school chem teacher wore them, but since then I've met nobody else who I know does -- including friends in chemistry, though they're mostly theoreticians.

My friends and colleagues have mostly decided that I count as a mathematician, despite the fact that I sit in a CS department. Unfortunately, this means that my girlfriend's father thinks I'm destined to go mad, since the only mathematicians he knows about are John Nash and Ted Kaczinski.


JeffP: High school's probably too late. Why not earlier? Even third- and fourth graders can pick up basic concepts like sorting, subroutines, pipelining, and even recursion. Sadly, it's the third- and fourth-grade teachers (and parents, and school boards) have trouble with these ideas.

FCSGS: Agreed! The trick is to find problems that lots of people find "neat". (RIP Jerry)

David: Ssshh! The monkeys will hear you!!


Actually bio folks still wear lab coats a lot: I see this in my wife's lab all the time.


I'm a female computational scientist (took my first programming class in 1970) and am very interested in this topic. When you talk about what you love about CS (pretty much the same as what I love--making abstractions real probably my favorite) remember what you are doing is very high-level and almost unrelated to building widgets for M$.

It must be that students don't understand that CS is a professional field with all the perks of any profession. I don't think kids aspire to being legal secretaries and medical lab technicians, they want to be lawyers and doctors even though you barely study these fields as an undergrad, let alone in third grade.

I find it hard to believe that the young women Klawe quotes about not want to work with horrible people who don't have a life are going into any technical fields. But--if they are--that's great because I think that's where you'll find the best potential computer scientists.

Why not try recruiting some of those women math majors?

Rudbeckia Hirta

My hunch is that the number of female undergrad math majors is inflated by various state and federal requirements that all high school (and now middle school!) math teachers need a bachelors degree in math. In the major-level classes I've taught (admittedly a small sample), a disproportionate number of the female math majors were also in the education program.

Really what CS (and math) needs to do is to figure out what the heck BIOLOGY is doing right.


Biology has a huge advantage over computer science. Kids, at a young age, are exposed to things that are cool about biology. They go with their parents to take their dog to the vet. They go to the aquarium. Animals and plants are accessible concepts.

The problems of computer science, as someone mentioned, are not introduced to kids at a young age. It isn't until they are in high school that they often get the chance to write a BASIC or C++ program, and then it's most often too late for most of the girls.

IMHO, the problem of computer science, is that people in the U.S. fear that IT jobs will be outsourced overseas, such as India and China.

Another problem of Computer science is that in the IT industry, older workers generally has a competitive disadvantage compared to younger ones (more energetic, know some new stuffs, ...). However, in some other (say, legal, medical, and finaincial ) professions, experience is a big plus.


IMHO, the problem with computer science is that people equate it with "the IT industry" at all. That's like equating mathematics with accounting, or biology with farming.


Perhaps, what's happening to math ( see some findings on parents' gender stereotypes in http://www.news.uiuc.edu/news/05/0726math.html ) is happening to Computer Science at a larger scale.

Mike Stiber

The really humorous thing is the expectation that Bill Gates might be part of the solution when he's virtually the author of the problem. What other company has so many technical contract employees (AKA, "perma-temps")? What other tech company has so many people working so many hours out of fear of poor evaluations, rather than because they're excited about their work? It's quite a talent, to take such an unrestrictedly creative field and turn it into drudgery.

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