Gender underrepresentation in beginning computer programming courses

Margaret Lynne Perkins West


This qualitative study examines the underrepresentation of females in beginning computer science courses at the community college level. The question of females majoring in computer science has resurfaced as the percentage of women earning degrees in computer science is still decreasing. It is believed that this trend will continue, and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has strongly urged direct action to attract and retain more women to computing and computer science. The main problem seems to be retention. The vast number of females who drop out of computer science have been attributed to many causes, but since 1990, research has focused on gender bias and stereotyping, societal factors, attitudes toward computing, gender grouping, computer experience, "hard" computing versus "soft" computing, learning styles, and motivation. The emphasis in research has been on external reasons that females drop out, and very little has surfaced concerning learning theory. Both mathematics and computer science are sequential in nature, in that new ideas and concepts are built on preceding knowledge. Since foundational knowledge is of paramount importance, the first courses in computer science are strategic in building that foundation. This research study investigated the characteristics of female computer science majors, their perceptions of how they have constructed their deep internal knowledge schemas, and their learning styles. This study proposes a working model to increase the retention of females in computer science. In this study lack of prior computing experience did not influence success. The subjects worked mostly in isolation, interacting with the instructors rather than with classmates. Gender bias is still an issue, affecting learning and self-esteem and creating an exclusionary environment for female students. All subjects reported at least one affirming relationship to help support and motivate them to continue in the program. Computer programming concepts were related not to mathematical concepts but to every day experiences. Difficulties in understanding a concept were directly related to the inability to Connect that concept with a personal experience. There was no difference in learning styles between female majors, female non-majors, and male majors.