Despite the growth and proliferation of information and communication technology (ICT) over the past two decades, women in the U.S. continue to lag far behind men in pursuing computer science (CS) educational opportunities and ICT careers. While women’s achievements have been improving notably in many areas of secondary education and post-secondary education, these achievements have not been realized in CS. The percentages of women involved in CS at all educational levels and in the U.S. ICT workforce are far less than would be expected given women’s representation in the population.
Responses to this situation have generally looked for ways to improve these statistics, particularly at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. We will propose that a more ethically sound approach to increase female participation would be to encourage female involvement in associated, more welcoming fields rather than in computer science and ICT directly. This approach will better satisfy utilitarian criteria, demonstrate respect for persons and cohere with an ethic of care. [Beauchamp, 1994; Rawls, 1971; Tong, 2000]
Research findings on the causes of this persistent gender segregation in CS academic attainment and ICT employment identify both broad socio-cultural factors that influence women’s participation in CS and ICT, as well as factors intrinsic to the teaching and culture of CS. [AAUW, 2000; Camp, 2002; Margolis, 2002; Martin, 1992; Wardle, 2004]
We will examine the potential for increasing the participation of women in computer science and ICT by accepting some recognized and alternative normative and empirical assumptions, and devising new approaches based on these assumptions. The assumptions include the following:
- Women are not selecting computer science as their specialization in either undergraduate or graduate schools to the degree that their intellectual competencies would allow.
- Women’s choices of not selecting computer science are reasonable ones, given the climate and priorities of that field.
Some people might wish to argue that lack of female participation is evidence of lack of intellectual competencies. However, this position is undermined by the strong participation of women in the biological sciences, mathematics and chemistry. As to climate and priorities in computer science, the male-dominated framing of problems and approaches to their examination and solution has often been noted. [Flanagan, 2005, Huff, 1987]
Given these factors, it may be ethically permissible to encourage women to consider specializing in undergraduate or graduate level work in CS, but neither wise nor ethically recommended to encourage strong consideration for that choice. It may be preferable to project some directions in which CS is likely to move, that involve associated fields in which women are more welcome, and to guide and enable women’s participation in those areas. Taking this approach allows counselors and mentors to increase students’ chances of successful educational and career paths, a utilitarian goal. It also expresses honesty, demonstrating respect for persons, and care for their wellbeing.
An alternative route to specialization in CS that involves underlying disciplines in which women are more welcome is assistive technology for the elderly — an integrated system of hardware, software, sensors and communication networks designed to help older adults remain independent as mobility and cognitive impairments lead to functional decline. The underlying ICT disciplines include human-computer interaction (HCI), artificial intelligence (AI) and computational perception and sensing technologies, all areas of study that have traditionally attracted women.
Computer scientists have long embraced Moore’s Law – a 1965 empirical observation by Gordon Moore, that the density of transistors on a semiconductor microchip doubles roughly every 18 to 24 months – as one of the drivers behind the enormous growth in the use and applications of ICT. However today’s conventional chip fabrication methods using CMOS (complementary metal oxide-semiconductor) technology are predicted to reach the limit of Moore’s Law within the coming decade as the physical limits of miniaturization are reached. An emerging technology such as nano-technology is a potential replacement technology for the CMOS transistor. Electronic devices built at the nano-scale level can be packed more densely and can operate far faster than conventional transistors opening up the possibilities for faster and more powerful computers.
Nano-science has underlying disciplines in the biological sciences and multiple application areas that have traditionally attracted women. But nano-scale level devices are at least a decade away from being fully developed. We could be encouraging and training women to enter these new technology areas instead of conventional computer science.
Doing so may provide a wiser and more ethically sound path by which to promote the participation of women in the emerging ICT technologies and related fields of science and engineering, from which they may make indirect or later contributions to computer science.
AAUW Educational Foundation (2000), Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age. Report by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, Washington, DC.
Beauchamp, T. L. & Childress, J. F. (1994), Principles of Bio-Medical Ethics, 4th, Edition, Oxford University Press, New York.
Camp, Tracy & Impagliazzo, John (eds) (2002), Inroads (ACM SIGCSE Bulletin), vol.34, no.2.
Flanagan, Mary, Howe, Daniel and Nissenbaum, Helen (2005), Values at Play: Design Tradeoffs in Socially-Oriented Game Design.
Huff, C. and Cooper, J. (1987), Sex Bias in Educational Software: The Effect of Designers’ Stereotypes on the Software they Design, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol.17, 519-532.
Margolis, J. & Fisher, A. (2002), Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Martin, C. Dianne & Eric Murchie-Beyma, (eds) (1992), In Search of Gender-Free Paradigms for Computer Science Education, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Eugene, Oregon.
Rawls, John (1971), A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press.
Tong, Rosemarie (2000), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Feminist Ethics. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-ethics. accessed 11.01.04
Wardle, Caroline, Martin, C. Dianne and Clarke, Valerie A. (2004), The Increasing Scarcity of Women in Information Technology is a Social Justice Issue, Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on the Ethical Impacts of Information and Communication Technologies (ETHICOMP), Syros, Greece, 893-903.