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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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