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Beyond Freaks and Geeks: Debunking the Image of Computing

Computing and technical jobs in general suffer from an image problem. In this podcast  John White, CEO of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), deplores the fact that young people’s inaccurate perception of computer science is part of the reason for decreasing enrollments in the field.

What do people think when they think of computing? Here are the common perceptions that keep many young women and men from entering the field.

Computing and technical jobs in general suffer from an image problem. In this podcast  John White, CEO of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), deplores the fact that young people’s inaccurate perception of computer science is part of the reason for decreasing enrollments in the field.

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<p>What do people think when they think of computing? Here are the common perceptions that keep many young women and men from entering the field. <p>

Six common perceptions of computing

1. “It’s for nerds and geeks”. In this recent New York Times article,  Jan Cuny, Program Director at the National Science Foundation and a long-time expert and advocate on the issue, points to the “nerd factor” as one of the biggest deterrent for women to enter the field. Many young people think “Dilbert” when they think of computing and engineering professions.

2. “You can’t be a people person and be a computer scientist/engineer”. Playing in the geek image, the perception that computer scientists and engineers work alone, are anti-social, and don’t know how to work collaboratively is a stereotype that turns of many from computing, especially women. In their book, Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher have documented how this image especially affect women’s willingness to go into computing.

3. “You can’t have a life and be a computer scientist”. Related to the anti-social nerd image, Margolis and Fisher also found that girls are also significantly influenced by the perception that the work of a computer scientist does not allow one to have work-life balance and that “real” computer scientists don’t have any other interests.

4. “The boom is over. It’s a moot field”. Since the high-tech downturn of early 2000, many young people think that computer science is no longer where they should invest for their future. UCLA’s “Freshman Survey” shows that the number of students with an interest in majoring in CS has dropped by 70% between 2000 and 2005.  The Computing Research Association’s Annual Taulbee Survey has shown that enrollment in computer science degrees has been steadily declining since the “dot com bust”. Some are viewing the current economic crisis and the impact it has on declining interest in business and finance as a potential boon for computer science, but that remains to be seen.

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5. “All the jobs have been outsourced to India and China”. Linked to the perception that Computing is a “moot field”, there is a widespread perception that most of the computer science jobs have been outsourced or “offshored”, mostly in China and India. Computer Science Professor Eric Roberts discusses this in his white paper This perception influences students’ willingness to invest in a CS degree, as well as parents’ advice to their children when it comes to choosing a major.

6. “You can’t change the world with computing” – related to the perception that computing is passé, some are under the impression that the field has no longer the potential to have a significant impact on the world. The sum of these perceptions brings up “A passé field for antisocial nerds where you can no longer get a good paying job and you can’t have a life”. Wow. No wonder computing has an image problem. However, the reality is very far from that perception.

Debunking the myths

1 & 2. Computing, the land of the anti-social nerds? Not so. While the media images of the profession often play into the stereotype, research shows a very different picture of the computing profession. In our study of 1795 technical men and women in the high-tech industry, we show that the most prominent work values of technical workers is Teamwork, with 90% of technical women and 86% of technical men reporting that they value teamwork. Our survey respondents also identified being collaborative as one of the top 5 success factors for people in technology (the other four being analytical, innovator, questioning, and risk-taking). The factors that were not identified with success were being geeky and isolated at the keyboard. As one of our female interviewees said, “teamwork is a key component of being an engineer. It’s not only writing code, but being able to do that in the context of working with other personalities.”

3. The high tech industry still has a lot of work to do to address the perception that work-life balance is not possible in computing positions. While progress has been made on this front, work-life balance is still very much a challenge for technical women. We will blog about that issue extensively because it merits further discussion, and provide examples of companies that are doing really well in that field and are actively debunking that myth. In our study, flexible work options were identified as a key factor for retention by mid-level women in our study, and most of the technical workers we surveyed tended to be satisfied with their company’s flexibility – men were more satisfied, with 80% saying that the flex practice at their company was good/excellent, compared to 60% of women.

4 & 5. On the perception that there are no more jobs in technology – while the industry is now global and some jobs have indeed been displaced to India, China and other countries, the ACM Job Migration Task Force report shows that the number of jobs in information technology is higher now than it was at the height of the dot-com era, and that the long term trend for growth in technology jobs in the US is very strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer software engineers are one of the occupations projected to grow the fastest and add the most new jobs over the 2006-16 decade. 6. There are still tremendous opportunities for computing – apart from being passé, it is now bringing up a world of opportunities. In fact, computing will be a part of the solution to the greatest challenges of our times: climate change and healthcare come to my mind, but the possibilities are endless……. If you are interested in imagining this future, Nature has a great series of articles on the future of computing. 

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If you are interested in this issue, visit the Image of Computing website (www.imageofcomputing.com) A consortium of many of our partner organization, they lead a national coordination effort to expose a realistic view of opportunities in computing and have some major public relations campaigns going on.

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