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Is there a gender gap in computing skills?

The bad old days. And no, that really is not a computer. I honestly don't know what's worse here, the outrageous sexism, or the horrific ghastliness of that beige plastic thing.

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.

Baroness Greenfield – is a little scientific restraint too much to ask?

I’ve so far managed to resist putting any outright opinion pieces up on this blog, but one particular news story caught my eye this morning that I just couldn’t resist commenting on, partly because it’s somewhat relevant to the topic of this blog (it contains computers, and psychology, so, y’know, that’ll do) but mostly because it made me want to repeatedly drive my head into the nearest hard surface while screaming things that even a Dutch sailor would find a bit offensive and inappropriate.

The story in question is this one, appearing in the Telegraph today, and written by their science editor, Nick Collins. It contains several quotes from Prof. Baroness Susan Greenfield relating to video games and the effect they have on children. The story has been quickly picked up by the two most offensive rags in the UK, The Sun and The Daily Fail, and at the time of writing is currently also attracting a fair amount of attention on Twitter.

Before we get to the story itself, some background. Baroness Greenfield is a well-known scientist in the UK; a professor of synaptic pharmacology at the University of Oxford, a peer in the House of Lords and an ex-president of the Royal Institution (she was made redundant from that post in 2010). She’s without doubt a very capable scientist with an impressive list of top-ranked publications in neuroscience. However, in August, she made some strange comments in a New Scientist interview, appearing to link internet use with various kinds of dysfunctions, including autism. A response followed from Dorothy Bishop who published an open-letter on her blog, imploring Baroness Greenfield to essentially be a little more responsible in what she says to the media, and to stick to her areas of expertise. Greenfield’s response was to say “I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all.”. This comment was widely derided as reflecting a basic error in reasoning that every first-year psychology undergraduate should know about, and gave rise to the often-hilarious twitter hash-tag #greenfieldisms.

Obligatory XKCD cartoon about correlation and causation.

So, after that little contretemps died down, you might think that Baroness Greenfield would perhaps be a little more measured in her comments, a little more circumspect, a little more scientific in terms of making unsubstantiated claims. Apparently not. From what I can glean from the articles published so far today it appears that Baroness Greenfield was giving a speech at Sherbourne Girls school in Dorset. In the speech she apparently said:

“Screen technologies cause high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more screen-based activity.”

This seems to me to be a reasonable, if debatable point. Internet addiction is becoming a reasonably well-documented issue, and there is at least some evidence for the involvement of striatal dopamine systems in its phenomenology, so, OK.

The other quotes (from The Sun write-up) were that connections in the brain:

“can be temporarily disabled by activities with a strong sensory content — ‘blowing the mind’.

And:

“Or they can be inactivated permanently by degeneration — ie. dementia.”

Now, I had my mind blown yesterday by the trailer for the new Avengers movie which just came out. Does that mean I’m a massive geek? Yes it does. Does it mean that some of the connections in my brain were temporarily disabled? Probably not. There’s little doubt that sensory input can certainly change the strength of synaptic connections through the well-known phenomenon of Long-Term Potentiation and it’s thought by many that LTP might be the process through which memories are stored and information is processed in the brain. Temporarily disabled, though? Very Unlikely.

Moving on to the last quote, Baroness Greenfield seems to be saying here that screen technologies cause dementia. Dementia. In children. Let’s just think about that for a second, shall we? Dementia and neuronal degeneration are generally only seen in older adults and the word ‘dementia’ normally implies a profound and global loss of cognitive function. To use it in this context seems mightily excessive.

Also, let’s not forget that Baroness Greenfield herself has previously publicly endorsed the MindFit cognitive training programs – essentially computer games – despite there being little evidence that such “brain-training” tools actually achieve anything useful. 

My point in recounting all this is that as a public figure, and particularly after the backlash which greeted her previous comments on autism, Baroness Greenfield really should know better than to use such emotive language when talking about issues like this. Of course parents are worried that their children spend too much time fiddling with their XBox and not enough time outside climbing trees, and there’s almost certainly a sensible and important evidence-based debate to be had about the issue, but to fire off unsubstantiated and emotive comments about it just leads to screaming Sun headlines like “Computer games ‘are giving kids dementia’”. This helps no-one, least of all the kids that might conceivably be at risk.

What’s more, as a scientist (and no matter what you may think about her public persona, her scientific credentials are formidable) Baroness Greenfield should know better than to make unsubstantiated claims. One of the big mistakes that science undergraduates always make when writing up research projects is to make interpretations in their discussion which go beyond the data they are presenting. PhD students get this tendency relentlessly beaten out of them by their supervisors and learn to hedge their conclusions with the right amount of caveats and conservatism, and reviewers of papers (in my experience) will also respond mercilessly to any small instance of speculative interpretation. I find it most peculiar that after a long and distinguished career in science Baroness Greenfield feels the need to make such comments. Is she doing it deliberately, perhaps in some misguided attempt to spark a debate? Does she just enjoy the publicity? I have no idea, but in order to avoid further damage to her reputation, and to the reputation of UK science as a whole, for which she is a representative, she should certainly consider her words more carefully in future.

Note: I’m a neuroscientist, so I’m not totally unqualified to comment on this, but I’ll happily admit I’m no expert on video-games, neuronal degeneration or dementia, so if anyone wants to post a correction to anything I’ve said here in the comments then please feel free, and I’ll gladly amend the article if necessary. Likewise, the quotes are taken from UK newspaper websites and (as usual with newspapers) no citation to an original source is given. In the interests of fairness and balance I should note that it’s possible that Baroness Greenfield’s quotes have been taken entirely out of context and don’t accurately represent the more general tone of what she said, however my final point still stands – when you’re a public scientist you have to be very, very careful about what you say, because the mass-media absolutely will take quotes out of context and make hysterical headlines out of them.

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