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The Computer Science Pipeline and Diversity: Part 1 - How did we get here?

(Cross-posted on the Google for Education Blog)

For many years, the Computer Science industry has struggled with a pipeline problem. Since 2009, when the number of undergraduate computer science (CS) graduates hit a low mark, there have been many efforts to increase the supply to meet an ever-increasing demand. Despite these efforts, the projected demand over the next seven years is significant.
Source: 2013 Taulbee Survey, Computing Research Association
Even if we are able to sustain a positive growth in graduation rates over the next 7 years, we will only fill 30-40% of the available jobs.

“By 2022, the computer and mathematical occupations group is expected to yield more than 1.3 million job openings. However, unlike in most occupational groups, more job openings will stem from growth than from the need to replace workers who change occupations or leave the labor force.”
-Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Projection Report, 2012.

More than 3 in 4 of these 1.3M jobs will require at least a Bachelor’s degree in CS or an Information Technology (IT) area. With our current production of only 16,000 CS undergraduates per year, we are way off the mark. Furthermore, within this too-small pipeline of CS graduates, is an even smaller supply of diverse - women and underrepresented minority (URM) - students. In 2013, only 14% of graduates were women and 20% URM. Why is this lack of representation important?
  • The workforce that creates technology should be representative of the people who use it, or there will be an inherent bias in design and interfaces.
  • If we get women and URMs involved, we will fill more than 30-40% of the projected jobs over the next 7 years.
  • Getting more women and URMs to choose computing occupations will reduce social inequity, since computing occupations are among the fastest-growing and pay the most.
Why are so few students interested in pursuing computing as a career, particularly women and URMs? How did we get here? One fundamental reason is the lack of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) capabilities in our younger students. Over the last several years, international comparisons of K12 students’ performance in science and mathematics place the U.S. in the middle of the ranking or lower. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than one-third of U.S. eighth graders show proficiency in science and mathematics. Lack of proficiency has led to lack of engagement in technical degree programs, which include CS and IT.

“In the United States, about 4% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2008 were in engineering. This compares with about 19% throughout Asia and 31% in China specifically. In computer sciences, the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded decreased sharply from 2004 to 2007.”
-NSF: Higher Education in Science and Engineering.

The lack of proficiency has had a substantial impact on the overall number of students pursuing technical careers, but there have also been shifts resulting from trends and events in the technology sector that compound the issue. For example, we saw an increase in CS graduates from 1997 to the early 2000’s which reflected the growth of the dot-com bubble. Students, seeing the financial opportunities, moved increasingly toward technical degree programs. This continued until the collapse, after which a steady decrease occurred, perhaps as a result of disillusionment or caution.

Importantly, there are additional factors that are minimizing the diversity of individuals, particularly women, pursuing these fields. It’s important to note that there are no biological or cognitive reasons that justify a gender disparity in individuals participating in computing (Hyde 2006). With similar training and experience, women perform just as well as men in computer-related activities (Margolis 2003). But there can be important differences in reinforced predilections and interests during childhood that affect the diversity of those choosing to pursue computer science.

In general, most young boys build and explore; play with blocks, trains, etc.; and engage in activity and movement. For a typical boy, a computer can be the ultimate toy that allows him to pursue his interests, and this can develop into an intense passion early on. Many girls like to build, play with blocks, etc. too. For the most part, however, girls tend to prefer social interaction. Most girls develop an interest in computing later through social media and YouTubers, girl-focused games, or through math, science and computing courses. They typically do not develop the intense interest in computing at an early age like some boys do – they may never experience that level of interest (Margolis 2003).

Thus, some boys come into computing knowing more than girls because they have been doing it longer. This can cause many girls to lose confidence and drive during adolescence with the perception that technology is a man’s world - Both girls and boys perceive computing to be a largely masculine field (Mercier 2006). Furthermore, there are few role models at home, school or in the media changing the perception that computing is just not for girls. This overall lack of support and encouragement keeps many girls from considering computing as a career. (Google white paper 2014)

In addition, many teachers are oblivious to or support the gender stereotypes by assigning problems and projects that are oriented more toward boys, or are not of interest to girls. This lack of relevant curriculum is important. Many women who have pursued technology as a career cite relevant courses as critical to their decision (Liston 2008).

While gender differences exist with URM groups as well, there are compelling additional factors that affect them. Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at UCLA, did a study in 2000 resulting in the book Stuck in the Shallow End. She and her research group studied three very different high schools in Los Angeles, with different student demographics. The results of the study show that across all three schools, minority students do not get the same opportunities. While all of the students have access to basic technology courses (word processor, spreadsheet skills, etc.), advanced CS courses are typically only made available to students who, because of opportunities they already have outside school, need it less. Additionally, the best and most enthusiastic minority students can be effectively discouraged because of systemic and structural issues, and belief systems of teachers and administrators. The result is a small, mostly homogeneous group of students have all the opportunities and are introduced to CS, while the rest are relegated to the “shallow end of computing skills”, which perpetuates inequities and keeps minority students from pursuing computing careers.

These are some of the reasons why the pipeline for technical talent is so small and why the diversity pipeline is even smaller. Over the last two years, however, we are starting to see some positive signs.
  • Many students are becoming more aware of the relevance and accessibility of coding through campaigns such as Hour of Code and Made with Code.
  • This increase in awareness has helped to produce a steady increase in CS and IT graduates, and there’s every indication this growth will continue.
  • More opportunities to participate in CS-related activities are becoming available for girls and URMs, such as CS First, Technovation, Girls who Code, Black Girls Code, #YesWeCode, etc.
There’s much more that can be done to reinforce these positive trends, and to get more students of all types to pursue computing as a career. This is important not only to high tech, but is critical for our nation to compete globally. In the next post of this series, we will explore some of the positive steps that have been taken in increasing the diversity of graduates in Computer Science (CS) and Information Technology (IT) fields.
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