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Science Careers Blog

September 25, 2007

Nothing to Fear but Software Itself

The reasons for the falling numbers of women getting computer science degrees are a mystery to educators and computer industry planners, but according to a recent Associated Press story, a new Ph.D. in computer science may have identified one of the causes: the design of software, a computer scientist's main product.

Laura Beckwith, a 2007 doctoral graduate in computer science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, wrote her dissertation on gender and human-computer interface issues, looking particularly at how men and women use software differently. Beckwith learned that men tend to use advanced features of software more than women, and that the use of advanced features correlated with confidence. She also learned that women generally have less confidence in their hands-on computer skills than men.

In one of her investigations, Beckwith surveyed groups of subjects, both women and men, on their perceived ability to find and fix errors in formulas in spreadsheets. Then she asked the subjects to actually perform tasks that required finding those errors. The key to finding the errors easily was to use the spreadsheet program's debugging feature, one of those advanced features men tend to use more than women. One could also try and find the errors by eye-balling the formulas one at a time and fixing them by hand, a time-consuming and error-prone process.

Beckwith's findings showed that for men, confidence in their computer skills had no effect on their use of the software's debugging features. Men with high confidence and low confidence used the features, while other men with high and low confidence in their skills did not. For women, however, those with confidence generally used the debugging tools, while women with low confidence in large part used manual editing rather than the debugger.

Beckwith took the investigation one step further, to the design of the software itself, to see if she could encourage more women to use the debugging tools. The debugging feature on the spreadsheet program required a user to indicate that a formula was either "right" or "wrong", which required the user to be certain about their choice. Beckwith introduced two more choices -- "seems right maybe" and "seems wrong maybe." And for those choices, she gave the users buttons to click displayed in subdued colors. In further tests with these new choices added, Beckwith found that women used the debugger as much or more than the men.

Computer science has seen a significant drop in the percentage of women earning bachelors degrees in the past two decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1985 women earned 37% of bachelors degrees in computer sciences. By 2005, that percentage had dropped to 22%. The problem likely has multiple intersecting causes, but Beckwith's research suggests that software design might be part of that mix. "[If] the software you're using isn't a good fit for your learning style, your problem solving style, " asks Margaret Burnett, Beckwith's dissertation adviser, in the AP story, "how likely are you to be to say, 'I'm going to grow up and be a computer scientist?'

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