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Efforts to shrink the gender gap in computer science would benefit from a better understanding of who pursues computer science and why.

That’s the basis of a paper, “Anatomy of an Enduring Gender Gap: The Evolution of Women’s Participation in Computer Science,” which analyzed students' interest in computer science over a 40-year period. The paper was presented Monday at the American Educational Research Association's 2015 annual meeting.

The authors found wide fluctuations in students’ interest in computer science between 1971 and 2011 but a steady underrepresentation of women. To help combat that, the paper recommends focusing on ways that computer science can lead to careers that are creative and have positive effects on communities, because women with artistic or social activist leanings haven't perceived computer science as complementary to those interests.

One of the paper’s other key findings is the shrinking salience of math confidence as a predictor of majoring in computer science.

The findings are based on responses of first-year, full-time students at four-year institutions to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's Freshman Survey, run by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The survey asks about students’ intended majors, so there’s no information in the paper about whether the students actually went on to complete a degree in computer science. The data also do not include community colleges, which the authors write have been an important steppingstone to science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields for women.

Interest in computer science spiked for men and women in the early 1980s before falling about a decade later. When interest bounced back in the late 1990s, it was mainly among men. In 2000, about 9 percent of male students surveyed were computer science majors, compared with about 2 percent of female students.

The share of computer science majors who are women also has been in a near constant decline since the early 1980s, with women representing about 15 percent of computer science majors in 2011.

Unfortunately, that means women’s involvement in computer science has dropped as demand for experience and career opportunities in the field have grown, the authors write.   

Math confidence is still the predominant explanation for the gender gap, but it has dropped from accounting for nearly 79 percent of the gap in 1976 to 13 percent in 2011.

That’s a positive trend, since women always have rated their math skills low relative to men, even among men and women who score in the top 10 percent on the math portion of the SAT, said Linda Sax, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and a lead author of the paper.

Another positive finding is that women who see themselves as creative and artistic are less likely now to be deterred from computer science than in the past.

On the other hand, an interest in social activism was a negative predictor for both genders’ interest in computer science. That’s important for the gender gap because women in general tend to place a higher priority on pursuing fields where they can help others, Sax said. She also said it was discouraging that family aspirations among both genders were increasingly tied to decreased interest in computer science.

The authors write that administrators and policy makers should focus their efforts on helping women understand the range of creative opportunities that can stem from a computer science degree, rather than trying to recruit women who share the same traits as men who traditionally have pursued the field.

Sax also suggested faculty members involved in recruiting students and writing curricula should emphasize the social factors related to computer science in course titles and syllabi.

“The field has to brand itself in a way that makes students aware of the possibilities,” she said, adding that several departments across the country have already started to do so. One example she gave is the BRAID Initiative, launched by Harvey Mudd College and the Anita Borg Institute to increase diversity in computer science at 15 universities.

This research is part of a drive Sax is on to get researchers and the public to stop talking about STEM fields in the aggregate, especially in terms of gender gaps. While the gap is especially pronounced in computer science and engineering, women actually outnumber men in biological sciences, she said.

“Every field is different,” she said. “Every field attracts a different constellation of students and has changed in different ways.”  

In addition to Sax, the paper was produced by Kathleen Lehman, Allison Kanny, Gloria Lim, Laura Paulson and Hilary Zimmerman, all of UCLA, and Jerry Jacobs of the University of Pennsylvania.

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