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Women, Mathematics, and Computing

Women, Mathematics, and Computing
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Author(s): Paula De Palma (Gonzaga University, USA)
Copyright: 2006
Pages: 6
Source title: Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology
Source Author(s)/Editor(s): Eileen M. Trauth (Pennsylvania State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-815-4.ch205


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In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote these gloomy words: The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. ... Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” The passage, of course, is from the The Feminine Mystique (Friedan, 1983, p. 15). Though it took another decade for the discontent that Friedan described to solidify into a political movement, even in 1963 women were doing more than making peanut butter sandwiches. They also earned 41% of bachelor’s degrees. By 1995, the number of degrees conferred had nearly tripled. The fraction going to women more than kept pace, at almost 55%. Put another way, women’s share of bachelor’s degrees increased by 25% since Betty Friedan first noticed the isolation of housewives. Consider two more sets of numbers: In 1965, 478 women graduated from medical school. These 478 women accounted for only 6.5% of the new physicians. Law was even less hospitable. Only 404 women, or just 3% of the total, received law degrees in 1965. By 1996, however, almost 39% of medical degrees and 43% of law degrees were going to women (Anderson, 1997). If so many women are studying medicine and law, why are so few studying computer science? That’s a good question, and one that has been getting a lot of attention. A search of an important index of computing literature, the ACM Digital Portal (ACM, 2005a), using the key words “women” and “computer,” produced 2,223 hits. Of the first 200, most are about the underrepresentation of women in information technology. Judging by the volume of research, what we can do to increase the numbers of women studying computer science remains an open question. While most investigators fall on one side or the other of the essentialist/social constructivist divide (Trauth, Quesenberry & Morgan, 2005), this article sidesteps the issue altogether in favor of offering a testable hypothesis: Girls and young women would be drawn to degree programs in computer science in greater numbers if the field were structured with the precision of mathematics. How we arrived at this hypothesis requires a look at the number of women earning degrees in computer science historically and in relation to other apparently similar fields.

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