Saturday, January 17, 2009

Still a men’s world
Ambassador: Maria Knobelsdorf, Germany

I would like to start the January Blog by wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful New Year!

My name is Maria Knobelsdorf and I’m the new ambassador for Germany. Let me begin my report about Women in CS in Germany by giving you first a brief account of the overall situation today and in the past.

CS was established at German universities in the 1970s. Female students were attracted by the new CS programs (of all first CS students 25% were women) and their participation constantly rose. During the 1980s and 1990s, in West-Germany the famous shrinking pipeline was established and female participation dropped to 7%, then slowly leveling off to 14% in the 90s. In East-Germany by contrast, the percentage of female CS students remained high throughout and only started to drop down after the reunification in 1993. Since then it has remained constant at less than 20%. At the beginning of the new century, the German government established several “women into CS/IT/Computing”-programs to augment the percentages of CS female students up to 40% in 2004. Unfortunately, beside a small augmentation due to the, CS female students still remain under 20% [1].

What are the reasons? Maybe one of the key points is that in German high schools CS is not taught nationwide in every grade like Math or German. For example, in some German states, schools do not need to offer CS classes, whereas in other states they must offer CS as a minor subject in 9th and 10th grade. By consequence, many students frequently have wrong, limited, or inadequate ideas about career opportunities in CS, as well as CS social environment and culture. Beliefs about IT jobs and careers are highly biased and restricted to the cliché of a lonely male programmer in front of a computer-screen. Here is a long-lasting battle field between administration, government and the German CS Education community. The latter persistently demands that CS becomes a full subject in high school, meanwhile the other side claims that “all this computing, web-surfing, and e-mail writing students learn at home. How to use a word processor the German teacher, and how to use Excel for statistics the Math or Biology teacher can easily teach, too…”

Another reason for low CS interest among female students are certainly missing role models. CS teachers in high schools are mostly male and the university teaching and research staff in CS institutes or departments is male as well. Therefore, a lot of initiatives have been started to bring more women into CS, with “Informatica Feminale” probably being one of the most successful ones. Organized as a summer school for female CS students and faculty, Informatica feminale brings together students, research associates and professors to experience CS in an unfamiliar female environment. Younger students meet birds of a feather, and seniors act as role models. The CS summer school for women has been very successful for 12 years, and has also propagated the idea to Austria and New Zealand in the last years [2].

Altogether, female students in Germany remain a minority in CS at all levels, and many more initiatives are needed to bring about significant change. As a researcher in CS Education I investigate into students’ pathways to CS. Many studies from countries with the same problematic situation like [3], [4] as well as my own results [5] show that male students start very early not only to use the computer but to explore it. They are curious how computers work and, together with peers and/or family members, explore the computer’s functionalities and possibilities in an open, self-directed, and “learning-by-doing” learning habit. Women by contrast approach the computer more intellectually and seriously: computers are no toys for them but a tool. Therefore, they don’t play, hack, or tinker around with it. When the computer is not working, they don’t start to figure it out by themselves as long as they haven’t exactly understood how it works and what they need to do. Last but not least, very often girls don’t have a buddy they can ask for advice and discuss computer problems with.

The rest is history: the boys continue playing and exploring with the computer; they discover webpages and start to work with html; php, flash or other script languages follow; then, their buddy has an older brother who is learning Java in high school, etc. When boys start to major in CS in university, they are already very skilled computer users and administrators who knows a lot about programming. The girls on the contrary remain curious but also somehow “helpless” users. However, some of them are curious, interested, and brave enough to dare choosing CS as a major… More about students’ pathways to CS in another blog.

[1] Britta Schinzel (2004). Kulturunterschiede beim Frauenanteil im Studium der Informatik Teil II: Informatik in Deutschland.
[2] Homepage of Informatica Feminale.
[3] Margolis, J. and Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, MIT Press.
[4] Cohoon, J. M. and Aspray, W. 2006 Women and Information Technology. Research on Underrepresentation, MIT Press
[5] My publication list about students’ pathways to CS.