[Edu-sig] Microsoft's KPL

John Zelle john.zelle at wartburg.edu
Sun Oct 9 02:31:46 CEST 2005

As usual, I don't have time to comment on all the intriguing things that 
have come out of this thread. But gender balance is something that I've 
spent a lot of time thinking about and working on as regards our own 
program. So I felt compelled to say something.

Laura Creighton wrote:
> Why females shy away from math and science is no big mystery.  It is
> deemed 'not useful' by them.  See many posts by Anna Ravenscoft on the
> subject here in edu.sig archives.  These days she is 'Anna Ravenscroft
> Martelli' having married Alex Martelli.  (Hi Anna.  cc'd to you so as
> to not talk behind your back, and in case you want to comment.)

I hear researchers say this at conferences, and I read it in the 
literature about gender balance in computer science, but I still don't 
understand it. Can you explain why when selecting majors women consider 
CS as "not useful" and therefore to be avoided when they seem to have no 
such qualms about, say, history or English literature? Here in the 
states, women are also severely underrepresented in natural sciences and 
engineering, also areas of obvious utility.

Speaking specifically to CS, both boys and girls are heavy users of 
computers now (although girls tend to start a bit later). So why don't 
girls perceive computing as a useful field of study? I don't think it's 
because it involves mathematics, because frankly, most entering CS 
majors (male or female) have no idea that CS involves much mathematics.

I can understand this "usefulness" argument to some extent for 
mathematics majors, but at our institution (liberal arts school in 
rural, midwest US), we have little trouble attracting female math 
majors. On the other hand, it is extremely rare to find a female 
interested in CS, period. Virtually all of our female majors are 
recruited when they take our CS1 class as either a Gen Ed. class or a 
requirement for another major.

To my mind, the "useful" argument is a nonstarter. There must be 
something else going on. Any ideas on what that is?

<snipped part about Laura being a mutant>

> But most women are not like this.  They want concrete usefulness.
> Here at Chalmers in Sweden the women students outnumber the men in all
> the Chemistry departments.  Chemistry is presented as concretely
> useful.  

As I mentioned above, this is not the case in the US. Chemistry is still 
one of the fields where women are underrepresented.

>When I offered a night-course of three weeks at the Chalmers
> computer society (all chalmers students are automatically members) on
> compiler design, pypy, and how to hack ...  only got 4 takers, and all
> male.  A different 4 week course -- 'how to build a bot to take care
> of seeing if your favourite websites are announcing the things you
> want to know about -- NO PREVIOUS PROGRAMMING SKILLS NECESSARY' got me
> 57 takers, 35 of which were women.

This is interesting. But is the real difference here practicality, or is 
it something else like the web (i.e. communication) or the NO PREVIOUS 

> Women are not programming because they do not see it as Art, Joy,
> and a worthwhile selfish pleasure.   But also because they do not
> see it as useful.  I have no idea why this is a mystery to the
> educators.  They must not speak to many women.

I speak to women all the time, and when I ask them why they're not in 
CS, they tell me it's because they don't like computers. I've never ever 
had one tell me they didn't find computers or computer progams useful.

As to why they don't see the Art and Joy, it's probably because they've 
never been exposed to it. It seems as if boys like using computers, and 
many of them, for whatever reason, are motivated to take a peek 
underneath and end up hooked on programming. Girls are using computers 
just as much, but don't seem to go that next step and try to see what 
makes them tick. Why? I don't know. Someone please tell me so that I can 
get my daughter interested in programming some day. (Not too soon 
though; I don't think there's a need for any kid to spend much time with 
a computer before at least Jr. High. But that's another thread entirely...)

> In Sweden we have laws preventing the sort of advertising that
> I think MSFT is doing in the USA -- targetting children is
> illegal.   

Then how do your kids know what their parents need to buy for them ;-)

>But given that you are stuck with it, I would be
> very interested in seeing if it has an effect in student sex
> ratios.

Perhaps that's one good thing that could come out of KPL-type efforts--- 
getting some girls to see the Art and Joy. Though I'm not holding my breath.

John M. Zelle, Ph.D.             Wartburg College
Professor of Computer Science    Waverly, IA
john.zelle at wartburg.edu          (319) 352-8360

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