Discouraging data: women in CS and IT

In making my mark in the realm of data and information visualization, it will probably do me good to become a better and more knowledgeable coder. I am now looking into pursuing a little more CS education, and am excited about diving into edX MOOCs in computer science (remember when edX was OCW?).

I’ve never shied away from things technical. I enjoy every opportunity I get to learn new software and programming languages, and nothing sucks me into an-all absorbing work cave as effectively as a new Javascript, HTML or CSS coding challenge. I’m even considering diving much deeper into CS than just the basics. After all, the entry level pay for a computer scientist or software engineer is at least 1/3 higher than the entry level pay for people in my current line of work.

However, these data give me pause:

Looking at the BLS numbers, it is interesting that these professions attract more women (as a percentage) than software engineers (20.2%):

  • Bailiffs, correctional officers, jailers (26.9%)
  • Chief executives (25.0%)
  • Database administrators (35.3%)
  • Biological scientists (45.1%)
  • Chemists and materials scientists (30.0%)
  • Technical writers (50.4%)

Even the professions that are said to have a glass ceiling (such as CEO) have more women in them than software development. Based on the number of science positions listed in the BLS data with substantial numbers of women in them, it is clear that the myth that women are afraid of math or science is just plain wrong (even if less than 1% of mathematicians are women). And given the bizarre outlier of DBAs at 35.3%, and technical writers at 50.4%, we can see that women certainly do not dislike computing fields in general.

IT gender gap: Where are the female programmers? by Justin James

Now I remember why I wasn’t attracted to CS at university. I would try to strike up conversations with computer geeks, and then get shut out of the weirdly intense technobabble tournament that every computer geek conversation eventually turned into. My work is now and was then a huge part of my life; but I learned very early that the people I surround myself with are at least as important as the work that I do. At the time, a choice of major seemed like a choice to surround myself with people like the people in that major for the better part of my adult life.

I can’t be the only woman who looked at the majority culture of computer programmers and thought, is this it?

MOOCs are not the end of education; they are a game changer

Some teachers are brilliant and talented coaches and mentors. But there’s still way too much focus on information delivery in higher education that just doesn’t make sense in an era when so much information is already freely available. The Powerpoint lecture generation is long overdue to move on and acquire different skills, and MOOCs are an important disruptive innovation that I hope will hammer that point home.

Many traditional professors could easily be replaced by a recording, a la Real Genius. As the author points out, MOOCs are good for information delivery, and many professors do little or no more than deliver information – the “real” learning happens in the problem sets and the projects and essay drafts, in the performance, feedback, revision cycle, which many universities and professors relegate to lowly paid graduate or even senior undergraduate students and to which they devote token attention.

MOOCs, then, are cost-effective substitutes for lecturers. Why pay someone every year to deliver the same lecture to a limited-capacity room when you can simply pay the same person once to record the lecture and distribute it to a zillion more paying students almost anywhere in the world?

With the cost of higher education rising as rapidly as it has as of late, students and parents are demanding more value in the education services provided by universities and college. Many educators are going to have to change the way they teach to demonstrate their relevance and value in the rapidly changing education marketplace, just like folks trained decades ago in other professions are now facing the need to retrain and modernize their skills to stay gainfully employed.

In the Internet era, when information is so cheap and easy to get, many teachers still maintain an antiquated focus on information delivery. Think of information like open source software. The raw materials are free, but you need a lot of training or practice or both to get them to work for you. So teaching with the Internet ought to be more like delivering a value-added service for free and abundant information resources.

I, like many others, would expect education to shift away from information delivery and more toward coaching students in finding, evaluating, using and generating information.

Is the attrition rate for online courses appallingly high? Yes. But that’s not the point. If you take the savings you reap from not having to pay the lecturer to deliver the same lecture every semester and invest it in a rich layer of coaching and mentorship on top of that online course, you might find that that course does more of what we in the real world need and expect it to do: prepare students for a world where information is cheap, and judgment, creative insight, analytical and collaborative skills are the real prizes.