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If We Want Women to Persist in Computing, Teach Them Programming – At Any Age

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Mark Guzdial

Two recent reports give us new insights into how to encourage women to persist in computing. Both reports stress the importance of giving women technical skills, especially programming.

Tim Weston, Wendy DuBow, and Alexis Kaminsky published a paper in ACM Transactions on Computing Education in September, "Predicting Women’s Persistence in Computer Science- and Technology-Related Majors from High School to College" (see link here). Over a six-year period, the authors followed almost 500 applicants to the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing award for high school women. They found that 177 of the women persisted in computer science, 137 persisted in a non-CS technology-related major, and 180 were no longer involved in CS or technology. The authors used multinomial regression to determine what predicted persistence. They found (quoting from the abstract):

Programming during high school, taking the CS Advanced Placement exam, and participation in the Aspirations awards program were the best predictors of persistence three years after the high school survey in both CS and other technology-related majors. Participation in tech-related work, internships, or after-school programs was negatively associated with persistence, and involvement with computing sub-domains of game design and inventing new applications were not associated with persistence. Our results suggest that efforts to broaden participation in computing should emphasize education in computer programming.

This is a large longitudinal study, which means that the authors can make strong statements about the survey results, but we don’t know details, e.g., about what was in individual participants’ "after-school programs." The authors explanation for the results is that women persisted in CS and technology if they developed programming skills. It didn’t really matter if they developed them building games or apps. It did matter if they took "web design" in an after-school program or technology internship (an explicit example in the paper). Web design experience did not give the women the kind of expertise that led to persistence. The authors summarize their results like this:

In sum, our results suggest that involvement in less technical aspects of computing does not lead girls to later involvement in computer science or alternative technical majors. While other research shows that younger girls may not gain the experience and exposure to programming that could lead to choosing a CS major in college, our study suggests that not all exposure to computer science concepts is equally as influential in girls’ persistence.

Reboot Representation (see link here) is a Tech industry coalition to close the gender gap in computing, explicitly because empirical results suggest that companies with more diverse teams (explicitly including more women) are more creative and innovative. Their report combines prior empirical results and interviews with Tech industry leaders working on closing the gender gap. Their report reinforces several of the points in the Weston et al. paper. They find:

  • It is never "too late." While many women report a declining interest in STEM (generally) and computing (specifically) in middle school, women can find an interest in computing at any age, including higher education and workforce development. There is a benefit to starting early, because there is more time to develop important skills. But many successful women enter computing later than middle or high school.
  • An enormous challenge are the often-reinforced stereotypes that computing is not for women. Many programs are designed expecting that males are the default gender of participants. Women of color face the largest barriers and are especially underrepresented with respect to population.
  • It’s important to offer diverse entryways into computing. It’s not all about robotics, game design, or app development — none of those have a significant impact on women’s persistence in computing. But offering a diverse set of on-ramps are more likely to engage. One example in the report: "The University of Washington’s reform effort that grew their percentage of women computing majors from 15 percent to more than 30 percent included ‘classes that connect software programming to philosophy or biology and an emphasis on real-world applications.’"

I particularly liked the concrete and examples in the report. There’s quite a bit about how to improve undergraduate computer science for women. Supporting the first two bullets above is this quote from the Reboot Representation report:

The chair of one university’s computer science department shared that, when their introductory classes took for granted that many of their students had substantial programming exposure, many women were led to feel "like they would never catch up."

Teaching women "unplugged" (non-programming) computing is easier than teaching them to program, in part because their teachers may find "programming" to be frightening (as discussed in this blog post from last year). Non-programming activities are unlikely to do harm, but they are also unlikely to encourage persistence. To keep going in CS and Technology, you have to learn programming. If we want women to persist in computing, teach them to program.


Linh Ngo

Dear Mark,

Does this imply that "computational thinking" courses that do not involve heavy programming could lull students into an illusion of competency (a concept I took out of the course by Dr. Oakland and Dr. Sejnowski on learning how to learn) and did not sufficiently equip them with the technical skills to go into more demanding aspects of CS?

The paper emphasized building games or apps and disregarded web design. How can technologies like Scratch be perceived through the scope of this work? Are they falling on the serious programming side or not?

Mark Guzdial

Hi Linh,

Great questions! The Weston et al. paper is a large scale (about 600 participants) study over time. It's hard to get answers to more subtle questions here, like what was in the afterschool programs or whether styles/languages of programming (e.g., Java vs Scratch) make a difference. I do think that these results suggest that developing students' confidence about programming is important. There is evidence that programming in Scratch can improve students' confidence (see as an example), and even evidence that we should start at the elementary school grades with pre-programming activities (e.g.,

I see at least two lessons from the Weston et al. study:
(1) First, AP CS A is not "awful" (which I have heard people say). It has strong and positive impacts on some students.

(2) Afterschool programs are not uniformly good. Some of them discourage students from going on in computing.

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