Harvard president's comments reignite debate over women in computer science, with reformers trying to reverse guy-centric patterns.
The computer science world was anything but welcoming to Maribel Gonzalez.
After a harrowing first year, she quit the computer science program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Until that point—six years ago—Gonzalez had excelled at math and had looked forward to a computer-centric career. But at UCLA, she felt overwhelmed by the programming experience of her mostly male peers. With no programming classes under her belt, the "sink or swim"-style courses, she said, did not suit her.
"I never worked so hard to get Cs," recalls Gonzalez, now a public-school teacher in New York. "It was a blow to my ego, and it scared me."
Gonzalez' tale is at the center of a trend that is disheartening to many.
Data from the National Science Foundation shows that the female share of bachelor's degrees in computer science dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001. And while women comprised 33 percent of information technology professionals in 1990, that figure was down to 26 percent in 2002, according to NSF. The drop is puzzling in part because women are making progress in related areas such as the natural sciences.
On the other hand, some efforts to bring women back to computing appear to be paying off. That's seen as vital for reasons including fueling the nation's tech economy and preventing male bias in the way future technology is developed. "Any sort of monoculture is bad," said Radia Perlman, a researcher at Sun Microsystems Laboratories. "You need people that can think from a different angle."
Harvard president ignites controversy
Spurred by the furor over recent remarks by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, the topic of the declining participation of women in IT is now prominent among concerns about the future of high technology in the United States.
At a conference late last month, Summers suggested that innate differences between the genders could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.
A growing body of research suggests that there are real differences between the brains of men and women.
But a number of scholars reject the idea that women are biologically less apt to succeed in the computer science field. They point instead to factors such as the stereotype of computer jockeying as a geeky, male profession. The long hours often required with computing jobs also may deter women who wish to raise children.
Center for Children
Cornelia Brunner, associate director of the Center for Children & Technology, argues that a societal swing toward conservative values over the past few decades has helped frame technology in masculine terms—as a powerful "magic wand," she said, rather than a tool that could help or hurt society.
"In a very, very deep way, it turns women off," Brunner said. "It puts the machine at the center, rather than its capabilities."
Closing the gender gap
While the statistics for women IT workers are bleak, they have spawned dozens of efforts to attract women to the field and encourage those already there.
One of the newest and most ambitious groups to emerge is the National Center for Women and Information Technology, a nonprofit based at the University of Colorado at Boulder that received a four-year, $3.25 million grant last year from the National Science Foundation.
The group's goal is to increase the ranks of women in the U.S. computing and IT work force from about 25 percent today to 50 percent over the next 20 years. It's already signed up an impressive roster of participants from more than 20 universities, a dozen high-tech companies and nonprofits such as the Girl Scouts.
Another focus is reforming college computer science programs to make them less about weeding out weak students and more about encouraging all comers to succeed.
Carnegie Mellon University has been something of trailblazer in this respect. In 1995, a paltry 7 percent of undergraduates enrolled in CMU's computer science school were women. Now, after instituting changes—comparable to affirmative action sans quotas—designed to attract women six years ago, women enrollment is closer to a third.
While still requiring high test scores, especially in mathematics, the school no longer puts as much weight on prior programming experience. Freshman accelerated-programming classes generally level the playing field by the student's sophomore year, said Lenore Blum, a CMU computer science professor.
"In the '90s, we selected for the geek personality," Blum said.