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How to get women into computer science

How to get women into computer science

Lisa MacLean explains what must be done to encourage women into the cybersecurity industry, and other computer science related fields

There is a push today to bring more women into Computer Science (CS) and its related fields, such as Information Systems and cybersecurity. A more varied project group can inspire products such as games, software, and technical devices that appeal to a wider demographic and increase sales.

Women are disproportionately concentrated at the lower ends of the socioeconomic scale, and high-paying technology jobs are a good chance of upward financial security. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics estimates over 100,000 cyber security jobs in the US are vacant, with a growth rate of
28 per cent. How do we solve this?

Start at the beginning

Spatial skills are important to succeed in CS. Children who are socialised with Legos and Tinker Toys will develop them faster. Dolls and tea sets don’t have to be banned, just augmented.

Intervene at the critical juncture

Boys and girls in the US used to perform equally well in foundational math and science until eighth grade. At this point, girls’ performance would drop off while boys’ go up. Yet, the male domination of math and technical courses is only found in affluent, industrialised countries.

Still, we can’t expect a high school senior to suddenly decide on a technical career for college. We need to increase interventions and design programmes geared to this age to keep girls interested.

Change acceptance criteria for college

There is such a strong correlation between calculus in high school and success in CS in college that many colleges are straining out candidates at the starting gate by using high school calculus as a prerequisite for admission.

An emphasis on high college entrance exam scores can have the same effect. Women who apply to
CS programmes tend to have lower scores than the men. However, once admitted, women post higher grades. Switching to more qualitative admissions criteria has boosted female enrolment in CS and shown initial success in some markets.

Engage women at the college level

Tutoring, mentoring, cooperative education, and involvement in faculty research have all been shown to increase persistence in women. Another causal factor is faculty relationships, such as faculty remembering and using names in class.

Promote positive images of females in all Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) areas
If women can’t “see it” they don’t always know they can “be it”. Women want to see normal, realistic portrayals in the media of women who simply happen to be scientists, programmers, and network or security professionals.

Promote cultural capital

Cultural capital is a set of experiences, usually reserved for higher socioeconomic groups, that has shown to increase female interest and success in all STEM fields. This cultural capital includes live music attendance, art classes, and music lessons. Outreach efforts to expose young women to these experiences should be explored, perhaps through volunteerism, programmes in schools, or free open-admission dress rehearsals.

A great deal of human capital is being wasted by not opening the door for females in an international economy that suffers from so many unfilled technical jobs. Women can succeed with the right tools, and it will be good for them, for businesses, and the economy.

Lisa MacLean is a consultant for DarkMatter


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