By SHEA N. CUTLE
Computers, the tool of the future, may be alienating half of the population in the computer science department. At BYU only nine out of the 59 computer science graduates in April were female.
“With the way the world’s going, if you’re not computer literate, you’re lost,” said Eileen Bunderson, co-author of a study done in the computer science department.
Between 1981 and 1990 the average percentage of female freshmen majoring in computer science was 28 percent. The average of female seniors in computer science between 1984 and 1993 was 10 percent.
Bunderson conducted the study in 1993 and found four major factors that contribute to the low number of female students in the program: expectations, experience, lack of people orientation and discrimination. This study was later printed in the Journal of Research on Computing in Education in the Fall 1995 issue.
“The biggest factor is that computer science is not what the female students expected,” Bunderson said.
“I had no idea what to expect, and when I did find out, I just felt overwhelmed,” said Natasha Miess, a senior from South Carolina who is now majoring in family science.
“Women tend to use computers as word processors, so they regard it as a tool they use to get something done,” Bunderson said. “They are less likely than boys to sit down and play games, less likely than boys to ever take computer classes. So they come to school with a different orientation about computers.”
Dan Reed, former dean of the computer science department, said “Young men are interested in `How does it work?’ Young women are interested in `What will it do for me?'”
Bunderson said the second factor they found was that females simply did not have the prior computer experience necessary to keep up.
“This isn’t just a female problem,” Bunderson said. “A lot of minority males have had the same problem because they haven’t had the previous computer experience either.”
Eliisa Turner, now a senior in accounting, had no previous computer experience.
“I felt a little lost because the professors catered more to students with previous experience,” she said.
Those unfamiliar with computers had to spend many hours in the labs making up for lost time, Miess said. “The classes weren’t overbearing, I just wasn’t able to get up to par. I didn’t have enough experience — I just wasn’t prepared.”
Though Julie Michaelis did have a little previous experience, she still felt lost.
“I always felt like I didn’t know anything because my professor always talked over my head,” she said.
The source of this lack of experience is as fundamental as what children do with their leisure time. Boys often play games — computer games.
“Boys develop a relationship with a computer. The computer becomes their buddy, their friend, not just a tool that they use,” said Bunderson.
But most girls don’t play games, not because they aren’t interested in computers, but because the games are not appealing.
In a study of 47 Nintendo games, for instance, 30 percent contained scenarios in which women were kidnapped or had to be rescued. The flashy covers on these games portrayed 124 characters — only nine were female.
Often, Bunderson said, game creators feel they have to “dumb down” games to entice a female audience, using “teen talk” and lots of pink. She suggested making games gender specific isn’t necessary, but creating interesting content was.
“They need to make them challenging enough without appealing to either male or female,” Bunderson said.
This male bias exists not only in games, but in many educational programs as well, Bunderson explained, because females aren’t as fascinated by violence.
“Instead of saying, ‘Figure out the trajectory of a bullet,’ why couldn’t you say, ‘We have a helicopter dropping an aid package in the jungle. Figure out the trajectory of the aid package being dropped from the helicopter.’ It’s the same, identical problem, just phrased differently,” Bunderson explained.
“So the first thing is to get rid of the violence in these games. Why do dinosaurs have to bite each other and chew each other up?” she queried.
Bunderson believes by reducing the violence and the extreme level of competition, more girls would be drawn to games and become familiar with computers at a young age.
“I think one of the reasons Tetris and Solitaire are the most popular girls games is because you’re playing against yourself,” Bunderson explained. Competition against your neighbor is not as appealing to females as collaborative work, she said.
The third factor Bunderson and Mary Elizabeth Christensen, an honors student at the time, who co-authored the article, found was the solitary nature of computer science. This was a real discouragement to many females who would rather associate with people.
“I wanted something more socially oriented,” Michaelis said. “My brother and sister both graduated in computer science from BYU and all they do is sit in front of a computer all day long.”
Reed said more men tend to be involved in the compiling and programming aspects of computers, while it is about 50-50 in the area of human/computer relations, which involves teaching the aspects of computers to those desirous to learn.
The last factor is that computer science is often an unfriendly atmosphere for women to work in, Bunderson said. Though the faculty and TA’s were usually helpful, many women in the study reported that they felt discriminated against by other male students.
Almost one in five students felt they had been treated differently because they were female. However, the study found that fewer than one in 20 males felt this way.
“Statistically, women’s thinking processes are not inclined toward computer-type applications,” said one male in the study. “There are exceptions, of course, but this is a proven fact over a population.”
“We try to have a gender-neutral viewpoint,” Reed assured. “We like everyone, but we expect them to be good computer programmers.”
Bunderson agreed that the faculty try hard to make their department female-friendly.
“Most of the things that occur that women view as gender biased are there because the faculty don’t think about it; it’s a subconscious kind of thing,” she said.
For example, in one instance noted in the study a “professor was reported as saying that one goal of computer language development was to create a `natural language — something that our wives would understand.'”
The study stated that the professor did not intend to be patronizing, but he did imply that all computer scientists were men and that women were not capable of understanding existing computer programming languages.
Also, there are no female professors in the computer science program — no role models for those women who try to stick it out. This could potentially influence some female computer science students.
“It’s always preferable to have a woman that you can see actually doing what you want to do, so you can see yourself doing what she’s doing,” Bunderson said. “Since we don’t have women in the computer science department, you have no option.”
Bunderson suggests that reevaluating unrealistic expectations in the entry-level classes would alleviate much of the situation. Also, Bunderson said, informing high school students of what the major really is might help freshmen who come to college