The Washington Post carried an op-ed which argued that addressing the gender gap in computer science is an urgent economic issue for our nation. The authors – Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani and Accenture North American group Chief Executive Julie Sweet – are right that addressing the gender gap in computer science is urgent. After all, in 2013 only 9,209 (or 17.9%) of the 51,586 bachelors’ degrees awarded in the US in computer science were awarded to women (according to the National Science Foundation). I was completely with them until they said this near the end of their piece:
Why focus on computing, when women’s share of other engineering and science fields is also low? Other science and math fields have already experienced gains in the share of female graduates in recent years. Computing is the only field that continues to decline. It also happens to be one area where we know the jobs are.
Uh, no. Let’s take a look at the numbers. After all, we’re scientists and engineers and we do numbers.
In 2013, only 16,934 (or 19.3%) of the 87,812 bachelors’ degrees in engineering conferred were awarded to women. In physics, the percentage was 19.0% (1,162 of a total of 6,107).
The US continues to experience shortages of engineers, and engineering salaries are comparable to those in computer science. Of the top 25 college majors ranked by salary by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 17 have the word “engineering” in them. Physics is 15th. Computer science is 11th.
The American economy needs more computer scientists. It also needs more engineers and physicists (even at the bachelor’s level). That’s why salaries in each of those fields are so high.
But is there any harm in arguing that the computer science gender gap is more urgent than in engineering and physics? Yes. Because accepting that misguided assertion leads to policy-makers allowing, for example, high school computer science courses to substitute for graduation requirements in math and science. That has happened in many states already. And it’s a shame.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the physics education research community, which has led the broader STEM education research community in so many ways for decades, has been working intensely to understand the origins of the gender gaps in physics and engineering. That community recently released a “Focused Collection” of articles on the gender gap in an issue of Physical Review Physics Education Research. For anybody seriously interested in the gender gaps in physics, engineering or computer science, it’s worth at least reading through the abstracts. In particular, I recommend the paper titled “‘If I had to do it, then I would’: Understanding early middle school students’ perceptions of physics and physics-related careers by gender”. The article addresses not only the differences between girls and boys in perceptions of engineering and physics that are ingrained by sixth grade, but also talks about the instructional strategies that might best draw girls back into these subjects.
Even the computer scientists would learn something from the physics education researchers. Go figure.