Is there a gender gap in computing skills?
It being International Women’s Day today got me thinking about sex and computers. No, not like that, get your mind out of the gutter, I mean in terms of differences between males and females in our attitudes towards and interactions with technology. Such differences (if they exist) might be pertinent in a field like psychology, where the majority of undergraduates (often with ratios approaching 10:1) are female, but (as in most other fields) the majority of professors are male. By contrast computer science undergraduate courses are overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Obviously there are a whole host of social/economic/gender-political reasons why this might be the case, and one would hope that the balance these days might be shifting ever closer towards a more equal representation of the two sexes at all levels and fields in science. However, given that the majority of undergraduate psychologists are girls, and successful post-graduate research is to an extent dependent on computer skills, systematic differences in the way the two halves of the population treat and interact with computers might be worth paying attention to.
So, do systematic differences exist? The short answer, is… I’m not sure. Anecdotally, I’ve known plenty of people of both sexes who are programming ninjas, and equally, plenty of both sexes who are utterly hopeless with technology. In writing this piece I’ve tried to take a (quick) glance at some relevant research, but honestly, it seems a bit of a mess. There are quite a few studies out there, but a lot of them are old (I mean, old in terms of the computer industry – like pre-mid-90s) and things have clearly changed since then, particularly for the generation of ‘digital natives‘ that make up today’s undergraduate cohorts. One older meta-analytic study (from 1998) reported that gender differences in beliefs about computers and behaviour related to them were negligible, while finding that males showed more self-efficacy and more positive affect related to technology. A more recent (2007) study in a population of Greek school children reported similar results regarding self-efficacy. Another recent (2010) study (PDF) on internet use in Taiwanese students reported that boys and girls differed in the manner in which they used the internet – boys were more exploratory users of the web, while girls were more communicative users. This finding was also shown in a survey of male and female US college students from 2009. This study also revealed some other points of discrimination between the sexes in their internet use, with males showing a heavier usage pattern overall. However, female students spend a higher proportion of their time online actually doing academic work; males spent more time using the internet for leisure-related activities (checking sports scores, downloading music, visiting *ahem* ‘adult’ sites etc.).
The most recent, and perhaps most relevant study I found is from 2011 (PDF), and is a survey of Accountancy students who, like psychology, show a heavy female bias in their numbers. This study found a difference in attitudes early in the curriculum, but the gender difference disappeared on a more advanced course. This is good news, as it might suggest that some of the differences found in previous research have reduced or disappeared, perhaps as a result of the greater penetration of computers into everyday life.
The computer industry and the way we use its products changes in a heartbeat, and I can appreciate the problems involved in doing research which might seem out of date almost as soon as it’s published (a search for “gender differences +iPad” on Google scholar turns up nothing), nonetheless there seems to be a real paucity of research here. Most of the studies I found involve surveys on attitudes to computers, rather than skills – presumably because skills are harder to assess. Whatever differences there are between the sexes when it comes to technology (if there are any at all) we need to make sure that we’re giving the next generation of students of both sexes the training they need to be effective researchers, clinicians and members of the workforce.