Gender Gap in Computer Science Education Widens, Report Finds

By Alyssa Morones — December 12, 2013 3 min read
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The gender divide in pursuing degrees in computer science is on the rise, a new report finds, spurring some advocates to consider steps needed to get more females engaged in the field. At the same time—male or female—the report from a business coalition concludes that American universities are not producing enough graduates to fill the job demands in the computing field.

With regard to the gender gap, women earned just 18 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computing in 2012, down from 27 percent about a decade earlier, according to the report from Change the Equation, a Washington-based coalition of business leaders promoting improved STEM education.

“There’s a social image around what a computer scientist looks like,” said Kimberly Bryant, the founder of the nonprofit group Black Girls Code, at a Dec. 12 event hosted by Change the Equation to explore the issue. “The startup culture is very male dominated. Changing that culture and its dynamics is how we can entice girls to become interested.”

The report does show that the number of U.S. students overall earning computing degrees has increased in recent years. But the gender gap has widened, with males making gains in completion rates, while for females the number of degrees earned has remained in a slump. At the graduate level, the gap also is wider. Of those earning a master’s degree in computer science, only 28 percent were female in 2012, compared with 33 percent in 2001.

Leaving aside gender issues, the report makes the case that universities are failing to produce sufficient individuals with computing degrees each year to meet the employers’ needs. It estimates that the U.S. market on average has 120,000 job openings in the computing field, but universities only awarded about 70,000 degrees in 2012.

At the forum on Thursday, analysts highlighted some potential policy barriers at the K-12 level for getting more young people to pursue advanced study in computer science. For one, as the new report notes, no state currently requires students to take a computer science course to graduate. Further, the majority of states still do not allow computer science courses to count as a math or science credit for graduation.

“There’s a credit barrier,” said Allyson Knox, the director of education policy and programs at Microsoft, who spoke at the event. “That’s not an incentive to take computer science.”

However, some states have recently taken steps to change, including Washington state and Idaho, which now allow the subject to count as either a math or science credit. Also, Chicago Public Schools recently announced that it will make computer science a core subject instead of an elective for its students.

The report from Change the Equation recommends several possible policy solutions, including calls for states to:

  • Make computer science a graduation requirement;
  • Adopt strong computer science standards;
  • Create “clear pathways” to teacher certification and professional development in computer science; and
  • Support programs that get girls hooked on computer science.

Education Week has previously written about the lack of computer science education, beginning at the K-12 level. A 2010 survey indicated a lack of computer-science courses available in secondary schools since 2005 and representation of females and minorities in these courses was especially low.

The event by Change the Equation was timed to coincide with Computer Science Education Week, which includes a campaign to encourage individuals to spend an hour learning about computer coding.

Microsoft’s Knox notes that even President Obama was recruited to talk up computer science in a video issued this week by the White House.

“Obama is talking about computer science,” she said. “Let’s jump on that opportunity.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.