“No girls allowed” in your school’s software?

CSforALL Stories
Published in
5 min readMay 28, 2019

Margaret Burnett, Ph.D / Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, Oregon State University; ACM Fellow; NCWIT AA Advisory Board

Some students don’t seem to “get” computers as well as others. Unconscious biases in software design are sometimes to blame.

How does biased software affect women and girls?

Students of different genders often use software differently, but most software is made by people who identify as men. Unconsciously, men often make software that tends to be “cognitively optimized” for other men. This leaves a lot of people out.

We can think about this happening in other contexts, too. When right-handed students throw with their right hand, they tend to throw farther with less effort. If we force them to throw with their left hand, we’re disadvantaging them.

Similarly, when a student problem-solves in one way, and we force them to problem-solve in another way, we’re disadvanging them. For software, the “them” being disadvantaged is often women and girls.

What kind of differences are there in how people use software?

In our Gender-Inclusiveness Magnifier (GenderMag) research at Oregon State University, we’ve identified five different cognitive styles people bring to their use of software. One of those differences in style is how people process information. For example, when trying to figure out how to accomplish a task in software, we’ve observed that men often prefer to choose the first promising option: processing information selectively with an incremental style. In contrast, in our studies women often prefer to gather information about many options before choosing: processing information comprehensively with a “burst-y” style.

Software that doesn’t support both of these styles is biased. One great example of avoiding this bias is in Gidget (helpgidget.org). Gidget is (free) software for teaching computer programming to young people. We’ll use it to show examples of how software can support both selective and comprehensive information processing:

  • Support for selective information processing: Students are free to gather a tiny bit of information about a programming command and immediately experiment with it. They can execute…

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