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Framing the Description of the Shrinking Pipeline


The shrinking pipeline is a known phenomenon in the context of computer science. It refers to the low percentages of women earning computer science academic degrees and holding faculty positions. Low percentages of women in computer science academic programs naturally lead to the underrepresentation of women in the labor market in computer science-related domains. One outcome of this phenomenon is expressed, among other things, in difficulties overcoming the critical, worldwide labor shortage in computer science and related professions.

The shrinking pipeline was described first by Camp (2002), and has since continued to be discussed in many contexts and forums with almost no success in widening the pipeline.

In most cases, solutions that widen the shrinking pipeline are described in terms of increasing the percentages of women studying computer science by a variety of ways: Mentoring programs, separate classes for female students, special curricula for female students, and a call to start closing the participation gaps in computer science in high schools.

We propose a different approach: Change the discourse used to describe the shrinking pipeline by replacing the percentages of women with the percentages of men. This change is simple: instead of talking of increasing the percentages of women, we propose talking about decreasing the percentages of men in computer science academic programs, in the computer science labor market, in leading tech companies, and so on. Clearly, the two descriptions are equivalent since the sum of the percentages of women and the percentages of men is constant and equals 100%.

Beyond this quite simple change in the discourse, we would like to focus on the source of the tendency to talk about the percentages of women. A simple explanation of this tendency would refer to a misunderstanding of the concept of percentages, but that would be too easy.

We propose a more plausible explanation for the tendency to talk about the percentages of women. Specifically, we propose the framing effect, identified by Tversky and Kahneman (1981). In short, the framing effect refers to the influence that the way information is presented has on how people act. The understanding that people are affected by framing can guide us to present certain information depending on how we want others to accept it and act. From this point of view, the framing of gender representation in the context of women leads to a patronizing discourse, as described above by the common approaches applied in the attempt to widen the pipeline, imparting the message that women need help to move forward.

But this is exactly the problem. As we can see, the current framing apparently does not lead to a solution to the problem and to a balanced gender representation in computer science. Furthermore, highlighting the shrinking pipeline from the framing effect perspective may even explain why the many attempts to widen the shrinking pipeline have, in most cases, failed: women do not need help to succeed in computer science.

The question to be asked at this stage is: What is the solution? What terminology should we use? One suggestion is to frame the discussion around gender equality: neither decreasing the percentage of men in computer science nor increasing the percentages of women in computer science, but rather, promoting gender equality. How simple. 

In conclusion, we note that:

  • Framing the discourse around decreasing the percentages of men in the contexts on which we focus in this blog, may also be expressed by writing reports about the representation of men in computer science and in a variety of actions related to men, such as expanding the range of socially legitimate opportunities offered to men beyond the tech-related ones.
  • The discourse on the low representation of women in a variety of fields, which in most cases are associated with prestige and high salaries, is not limited to tech domains. Therefore, the context of the above discussion is broader than merely that of computer science and its associated occupations.

References

Camp, T. (2002). The incredible shrinking pipeline, Communications of the ACM 40(10), DOI:  10.1145/543812.543846.

Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice". Science 211 (4481): 453–458. DOI: 10.1126/science.7455683.

 

Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion's Department of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering, and data science education. For additional details, see https://orithazzan.net.technion.ac.il/. Heftzi Zohar has a Ph.D. in Chemistry. She is currently Deputy Mayor of Beer Sheva, Israel, and holds the education and welfare portfolios in the Beer Sheva Municipality.


 

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