A significant gender gap still exists among college-bound students in their opinions of computing as a possible college major or career, according to new research from the Association for Computing Machinery and the WGBH Educational Foundation.
The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, found that 74 percent of boys-regardless of race or ethnicity-reported that a college major in computer science was a “very good” or “good” choice for them, but only 10 percent of girls rated it as a “very good” choice and 22 percent rated it as “good.”
The gender gap also extended to computer science as a potential career choice. Given a choice of 15 possible careers, computer science came in fourth among the respondents, with 46 percent rating it “very good” or “good.” However, while 67 percent of all boys rated computer science highly as a career choice, only 9 percent of girls rated it “very good” and 17 percent rated it “good.”
“We know that the number of computer science majors is not meeting projected work force needs,” said John White, ACM CEO and co-principal investigator for the project. “Many factors contribute to the low interest in computer science, but the image of the field is a key element in current perceptions among this population.”
According to the report, all survey respondents were asked, “What word comes to mind when you see or hear the word ‘computing’?” Among both high school boys and girls, the most common responses were “software,” “programming” and “technology.” However, boys and girls differed significantly when it came to secondary responses.
For example, boys tended to use words such as “design,” “games” and “video,” while girls responded with the more negative “boring,” “hard” and “nerd.”
Perhaps most startling, White cited a finding from a 2006 conference sponsored by the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education that 80 percent of today’s college freshmen-the very students who grew up with computers-said they had no idea what computer science majors actually do.
“The results of this initiative will provide us with the tools to turn around the misplaced notions and lack of information that surround the world of computing and reinforce the critical and exciting role computing plays driving innovation in a global economy,” said White.
The report is based on a nationwide online survey of 1,406 college-bound teens in late 2008 and was developed in response to a UCLA study that found the number of undergraduates choosing a computer science major was down 70 percent from 2000-2007. In addition, a 2007 Computer Research Association Taulbee Survey reported double-digit declines in enrollments for graduate degrees.