Beating the bias: Getting girls into programming

Dominique Danco
Jul 17, 2016 · 6 min read

“’What are you doing, Barbie?’ asks Skipper.”

“’I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,’ explains Barbie.”

“’Can I play your game?’”

“’I’m only creating the design ideas,’ Barbie says, laughing. ‘I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.’”[i]

Are you kidding me? This pathetic excuse for an “empowering” book was written to get girls interested in computers — by telling them that they’ll need boys to get anything done. Call me crazy, but that strategy doesn’t seem very logical.

Currently, only 18% of computer science majors in the US are women.[ii]When I look around the classroom in my Computer Science classes, there are shockingly few female faces. There is no gender quota on the course registration page saying, “Hold up, no more women allowed in this class.” But for some reason, a lot of women just don’t sign up. There are plenty of very smart, very capable women who could succeed in the programming world if they wanted to — and some do. But most of them don’t try.

When I tell my female friends that I’m in computer science, a common reaction is: “Cool! I could never do that.” This is coming from young women who are in incredibly rigorous programs themselves, from biology to neuroscience to philosophy. They are confident in their abilities in these areas and tackle new courses and challenges, learning countless facts, techniques, and skills. Yet they view my introductory classes as something that they could never do.

Programming can seem a very “right or wrong” kind of problem solving. You are presented with a task: write a program that will do such-and-such. At first it can seem impossible. But after thinking and tinkering, editing and debugging, all of a sudden it works. And that’s it: either the program works or it doesn’t. It’s not like a history paper that can be critiqued on a spectrum and viewed from multiple angles, or a biology lab where even conflicting results can prove an important point.

No, in programming if someone tells you to write code to solve a Sudoku puzzle, you can either do it or you can’t.

And that’s scary.

Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia, describes men as often having what he calls “honest overconfidence.”[iii] That means that they are likely to overestimate their abilities and attempt problems that might be outside their realistic range of ability.

In computer science, that can be a good thing. When presented with a difficult problem, staring at it and saying “that’s impossible” isn’t going to get you anywhere. But naïvely thinking you can solve it actually does help — it’s only by diving in headfirst that you can make the necessary steps to really grasp the problem and find a solution.

But that is not a strategy that comes naturally to women. Journalist Katty Kay describes women’s tendency towards perfectionism by saying, “We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer…we watch our male colleagues take risks, while we hold back until we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified.” [iii] This mix of perfectionism and risk aversion does not pair well with the “right or wrong” nature of programming.

But is this the reason why women tend to shy away from computer science? Maybe. But there are other fields that are based this way. Math is an obvious example of a topic that demands “correct” solutions. In 2013, 34% of math majors in the US were female.[iv] Women are still a minority, but that’s almost double the percentage of female computer science majors. So while this right-wrong factor might be an aspect steering women away from math, the situation is far worse in computer science.

This might be due to the fact that women are forced to face any fears of math from the very beginning; when we were in first grade we all had to learn addition and subtraction, no matter our gender. Some of us liked it, some of us didn’t. Some of us excelled, some of us didn’t. But the fact remains, everybody was exposed to mathematics. There is no mystery to the subject as a whole; after twelve years of formal schooling, most students entering university know full well whether or not they enjoy the subject, and whether it is something they are interested in pursuing.

Computer science does not get the same fair trial. Many people, especially girls, write off the subject as “too hard” or “not for me” without ever even trying a class. They look at the jumble of for-loops and if-statements and think: “That’s impossible.”

As Kay aptly notes, “the natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back.” And holding back is not a strategy that bodes well for writing computer programs. But this problem can be remedied: Kay continues: “when we doact, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do.” [iii]

Zachary Estes, a research psychologist, demonstrated this point in a study in which men and women each were asked to solve puzzles. The men performed far better than the women. Upon further examination, the disparity was found to be due to the fact that the women had failed to try many of the problems, assuming them to be too hard. But when the subjects were asked to at least attempt all of the puzzles, the men and women scored equally. [iii]

Now picture that scenario in the context of programming. If a man and a woman are both given a task to solve, this tendency could be fatal; not attempting the problem will be the woman’s downfall. If only she had the confidence to step away from perfectionism and toy with the potential solutions, wrestle with uncertainty, she’d be far more likely to succeed. But if women allow themselves to be intimidated by failure, they will inevitably shrink into the shadows and leave the field of programming to the men.

How can we solve this problem? It’s obviously far too complex for a simple fix, but for a start, how about women giving computer science the chance it deserves? If we implemented programming and computer science courses in elementary schools the same way we teach kids the times tables, maybe then a couple of lines of code wouldn’t be enough to scare away a potential future programmer. If my friend who thought that she could never be a computer scientist had taken a programming class in first grade, maybe she would have excelled, during the period in her development when she was less averse to failure.

Countries around the world are beginning to realize the benefits of starting kids programming at a young age. Starting in 2014, all children in England’s public schools are being introduced to coding at age five, and are taught programming languages by age eleven. In a Silicon Valley school district that introduced programming to elementary school students, feedback revealed that girls showed just as much interest as boys. [v] These girls were shown the fun of programming before being exposed to any bias that it’s not for them.

No, adding programming classes to more grade schools won’t magically eliminate the gender gap, put an end to sexism, and empower millions of women to become successful programmers. It would be ignorant to think that such a simple change could be the solution that women around the world have been waiting for. But it would be a start.

Not every little girl that enjoys programming class will aspire to become a programmer. Not every little boy will either. And that’s ok. But we should be showing them that they can do it if they want to. Because maybe if Barbie had been told that she was just as capable as the boys, she wouldn’t think that she needed Steven and Brian in order to make her game design come to life.

[i] Romano, Aja. “Barbie Book about Programming Tells Girls They Need Boys to Code for Them.” The Daily Dot. N.p., 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

[ii] Miller, Claire C. “Some Universities Crack Code in Drawing Women to Computer Science.” The New York Times. N.p., 17 July 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

[iii] Kay, Katty, and Claire Shipman. “The Confidence Gap.” The Atlantic. N.p., May 24. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

[iv] Marrone, Katherine. “Why Few Women Major in STEM Fields, and What the UO Is Doing to Change That.” The Daily Emerald. N.p., 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

[v] Gardiner, Beth. “Adding Coding to the Curriculum.” The New York Times. N.p., 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.


The Future of Education

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Dominique Danco

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