Why do we tell girls that computing is hard?

The Guardian had an interesting collection of articles on computing this weekend (thanks, Nick Falkner for posting about these!), including one on why girls don’t study computer science. It talked about peer pressure, and the need to overcome these issues to encourage girls to attend early classes in computing – that the push in the UK to teach computing in secondary schools was coming too late to attract students who had previously been turned off computing.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the thoughts here – pressure to partake in social activities rather than academic is certainly an issue, but I don’t see why this would have a greater impact upon computer science than other areas? Perhaps one of the problems is  the messages that we, as professionals in the area, are sending?

This reminds me of a recent post on successful summer camps, where Mark Guzdial references a discussion on what was unsuccessful, being that female leaders at the camps were sending mixed messages to the potential students by focussing on the fact that computing is hard but also fun. The first message (that computing is hard) is the one that the students left with. I have had similar experiences when we ask senior students to talk to new first year students, both in computing and engineering programs, and also with industry speakers. Why do we do this? Why do we feel the need to focus on the difficulties? We also tend to speak about how there aren’t enough girls in computing (or engineering) – by doing this, we send the message: you’ll find it tough, and maybe you should think about doing something else.

Last year I was involved in a national study on attrition in Engineering programs in Australia, including Software, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering. One of the interesting results that came out from that study was that our female students completed their programs earlier than our male students, and had a lower drop out rate. Why do we say that this is hard when they are obviously doing so well?

(Of course this is just one of the, inter-related, issues here – another really interesting project in this space that I have been reading about is Julie Mill‘s work on gender-inclusive curriculum, certainly worth a read. And, the essential: Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, which describes curriculum reform that resulted in female participation rates changing from 7% to 42%.)


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