Article from Prosabladet, September 2021
Better Gender Balance in IT
Increasing the appeal of Computing Education to women
The original article was written in Danish by Ole Hoff-Lund, Editor of Prosabladet [ email@example.com ] and was published in Prosabladet in the September issue of 2021. The article has been translated to English for the Center for Computing Education Research (CCER) at the IT University of Copenhagen (ITU), Denmark. Photo: Magnus Møller.
Researchers from the IT University of Copenhagen have discovered how IT-educations can get a better hold of female students. It is about finding the human angle in the teaching of programming and software development.
We hear it every year at the beginning of the academic year: Too few women apply for educations within the area of IT, other natural sciences, and technical STEM educations.
However, now five researchers from the IT University of Copenhagen (ITU) may have cracked the code as to how IT education can be made more appealing and relevant for women.
In two big research publications, which were published at the renowned conference ACM International Computing Education Research (ICER 2021) towards the end of August, the researchers demonstrate that, with a few minor changes, education in IT can be organized such that it appeals a lot more to girls and women.
– We have made some extremely exciting discoveries, and I am convinced that it will have great impact for our teaching at ITU; well, for the entire world, in the future, says Claus Brabrand, who is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the IT University of Copenhagen where he is the Head of the Center for Computing Education Research (CCER).
He speaks with such excitement that you almost get the impression that the researchers have found the holy grail. In essence, it is about changing the packaging of existing education such that it, to a higher extent, puts the significance of the technology for people in focus. In other words: “PEOPLE” rather than “THINGS”.
– If we want to have more women in IT education, then one should not underestimate the importance of communicating clearly about the relevance and significance for people when we talk about IT and its role in society, says Claus Brabrand.
Based on reality
Claus Brabrand knows what he is talking about. Over several years, he has spearheaded a number of initiatives designed to recruit more female students to the Bachelor of Software Development at ITU. Thus far, ITU has increased the percentage of women from 10% in 2015 to 23% in 2020. And, it is important to continue this development, he states:
– IT is of tremendous importance to our daily lives, and we run the risk of distorting the gender-balance in society, if the technologies to a too large extent are designed and developed exclusively “by men for men.”
Among other things, Claus Brabrand, has designed the educational content for a series of IT Camps at ITU where female high-school students can come and get a feel for the IT education over the course of a few days.
– It’s an eye opener for many. We know that many of the students are contemplating studying medicine or law, but after the visit, they all of a sudden get an idea of what Software Development can be used for in real life. This has contributed significantly to an increased number of female students, says Claus Brabrand.
In addition, all new ITU students are offered the chance to attend the three-day onboarding introductory programming course, BootIT, before they start at University, so that they get a bit more comfortable with coding, before it really starts.
– Not everyone has programmed in their parents’ garage, he says.
In his own teaching, he has always had a focus on incorporating real-life problems into his exercises for the students.
– Everything I use in my teaching has to be as based in reality as possible. It could, for instance, be about computing BMI or creating a currency converter, Claus Brabrand emphasizes. His approach to teaching IT contributed to him being awarded the (first) Danish National Teaching Award (Undervisningsprisen) in 2020 along with a prize of 500,000 DKK (approximately $80,000 USD) which was handed over by H. R. H. Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.
PEOPLE vs THINGS
The two studies “Computing Educational Activities involving PEOPLE rather than THINGS appeal more to Women” are about the recruitment, respectively, retention of female IT students. The first study is conducted among 500 high-school students. The second involves 152 students at university (ITU). The project has been undertaken by: Associate Professor, Claus Brabrand; Statistician, Therese Graversen; Philosopher of Technology, Paweł Grabarczyk; along with ITU-students, Melissa Høegh Marcher and Ingrid Maria Christensen.
Inspiration from abroad
In the new research project, Claus Brabrand gained the inspiration from several foreign psychologists. In particular, the world famous Canadian-American Professor Steven Pinker from Harvard University who, with his 715,000 followers on Twitter and over 100,000 citations of his research papers, has a big audience.
It was during an online lecture with him that everything all of a sudden fell into place for Claus Brabrand.
– It is well-known that there, on an overall level, are big differences between the interests of women and men. It can, for instance, be seen in the many databases where you can test which occupation is most suitable for you, when you have to pick an education. Steven Pinker points to a particular dimension and that is the very strong correlation between gender and interest in “PEOPLE vs THINGS,” Claus Brabrand explains.
He stresses that he is speaking in general terms and that there are obviously large individual differences among women and men and their fields of interest.
– Once I learned about this, I immediately realized that we could take all of our teaching materials and repackage them in another theme, such that we change it from something abstract to something human. Something real, he says.
Based on this, he and the other researchers decided to investigate how high-school students and first-semester IT university students would react to exercises involving PEOPLE versus THINGS. First, 500 high-school students were asked to consider four hypothetical tasks where they, among other things, had to review an article about IT, design an App, and develop a small “if-else” program.
Claus Brabrand hopes IT is able to recruit more female students. Photo: Magnus Møller
Each of the tasks came in two variants that the students had to choose between: One involving “PEOPLE,” and one involving “THINGS.” The syntactic sentence structure was equivalent in the two versions; only words relating to the theme were different.
For example, one task was about “combining the right team mates for a project team,” whereas the other task was about “combining the right spare parts for a machine.” In each of the four tasks, the students had to indicate which of the two variants they would rather do. The experiment involving high-school students demonstrates that women have almost three times higher odds, than the men, of choosing tasks involving PEOPLE.
– I was completely blown away when I saw the results, say Claus Brabrand and elaborates:
– Men, as a group, are by and large indifferent as to whether the task involves PEOPLE or THINGS, whereas the women really want it to be about PEOPLE.
Three times higher odds
Because of this, the researchers decided to investigate whether the same was the case, when it involved real assignments rather than hypothetical ones in a questionnaire. Also, whether ITU would be able to retain more female students, if the exercises are organized according to the same philosophy with a more human perspective on the programming exercises.
The share of IT companies in the EU that state that they have had a hard time employing IT-specialists. (Source: Eurostat)
It is one thing that ITU would like to recruit more female students to the IT educations such as Software Development. They would also like to make sure that education actually appeals to the female students once they have chosen this as their field of study.
– I actually believe it would be rather unethical, if we “lured” female students to study IT with the message that it’s about PEOPLE, if the teaching, in reality, were to be all about gadgets and THINGS, Claus Brabrand says.
The researchers obtained permission to slightly alter the Introductory Programming course on the first semester of the Software Development educational programme. To be precise, three mandatory hand-in assignments were adapted using the same template: For each assignment, the students could choose between two almost identical assignments; one about PEOPLE, the other about THINGS.
The choice was, for instance, between “developing a program such that a receptionist could get an overview of room bookings in a hotel,” or “developing a program such that a screen could get an overview of container bookings on a cargo ship.”
The students were not made aware of the experiment in advance.
– Although the phrasing is practically identical, or isomorphic, the assignments appear to be different because the themes are different. None of the students commented on the fact that the two were basically the same programming exercise, Claus Brabrand explains.
The human perspective
Again, the results left no doubt. In general, the men did not exhibit any particular preferences for one assignment over the other. The vast majority of women, however, chose assignments about PEOPLE. When combining the three assignments, the results are even clearer. Half of the women chose three times the assignment about PEOPLE. None of the women chose three times the assignment about THINGS.
The experiment also showed that students without prior programming experience have 1.4 times higher odds of choosing the PEOPLE versions with the human angle, compared to the ones with prior experience. If this is combined with the gender effect of 2.7, it yields an odds ratio of 3.8 (1.4 x 2.7); i.e., women without prior programming experience have 3.8 times higher odds of choosing the PEOPLE version, compared to men with prior experience.
– For women who haven’t programmed before, it is even more important with this type of exercise. There is no doubt about this, says Claus Brabrand, who is surprised that no one has made a similar experiment earlier.
– We do not know what the underlying cause is for why women apparently have a tendency to choose projects involving PEOPLE rather than THINGS. But, if it is merely a question of the way in which we contextualize the subject of IT, then there is obviously something we can do about it, says Claus Brabrand.
The effect should be measured
He stresses that his goal is not to change the content of IT education in a way that favors women at the expense of men. The point is that it makes sense to offer a choice.
– It will require some resources for the teachers to change the formulation of the problems, but it is just as easy to correct them no matter what, he says.
The share of IT-jobs in the EU employed by female it-specialists. 81.5% are men. (Source: Eurostat)
For this reason, the next step would presumably be to ask the teachers at ITU teaching early semesters, to consider their projects and assignments and change them in the direction of a human angle. Hereafter, Claus Brabrand imagines taking a whole bunch of exercises and test them against the old formulations to see the effect of that.
– I have a hunch that the effect diminishes, the more programming experience you get as a student. Students that are comfortable with programming are probably more preoccupied with the technology itself than the theme of the assignment or how it is formulated, he says.
Prior to the presentation of the two research papers at the conference in South Carolina, which, this year, took place online, Claus Brabrand shared his findings with Professor Steven Pinker, who provided the inspiration for the entire project. The reaction warms Claus Brabrand:
– He wrote back that the paper was fascinating. I take that as an indication that this is really something that could help address a very important agenda for society.
The researchers emphasize that their method cannot stand alone in the quest for creating a more equal gender distribution in IT education and the IT industry, but that it complements other initiatives already in place.
– For instance, it is about abolishing the stereotypes about pizza and soft drinks in a dark basement and creating a good study environment that embraces everyone. Having more female role models. It is also a good idea to turn down the competition and turn up the collaboration/cooperation in the study environments, says Claus Brabrand.
He points out that the results presumably also apply to the other STEM subjects such as, for instance, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and Engineering.
– It probably will not take long before others will investigate the possibilities for similar topics with a shortage of women, says Claus Brabrand.
Claus Brabrand’s 3 reasons for getting more women into IT
1. Larger mass of talent
IT-specialists are in shortage in the entire world. In Denmark, an investigation shows that Denmark will be about 20,000 IT-people short in 2030. It is difficult to change as long are we are only recruiting from half of the population. With more women in IT studies, the talent mass gets larger.
2. Avoiding bias
If our common digital infrastructure is made by a male minority, we are risking bias. A scary example is the story of seat belts which were originally only tested for people of 180 cm and 80 kg. For smaller people the protection was less fortunate. It is important that IT solutions are created “by everyone for everyone.”
3. Career options
Women are missing out on good career options when they ignore IT education. IT has crept into all work areas; almost like reading and writing. Once you have knowledge of programming, you can bend technology to your own purpose. Otherwise, you become a slave of the technology.
Women choose PEOPLE
152 first-semester students were offered three assignments (B, C, and D) each of which came in two versions: One involving PEOPLE (P), and one involving THINGS (T). Here is the histogram summary of their choices, according to gender:
■ Men ■ Women
The histogram shows how many male and female students that picked PEOPLE over THINGS every time (3/3), two out of three times (2/3), one out of three times (1/3), or never (0/3):
■ Men ■ Women