Look out for new slogan: “Computing empowers you to do good”

Posted on June 3, 2009

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Despite strong career prospects, computing education continues to suffer low student intakes and the rates for women are crazy low (Taulbee report).   “Something is wrong with perceptions of computing” can be heard around the halls of every campus and computing conference.   The truth may be that something is wrong with computing.   There’s a report released today by ACM (pdf, press release) that goes some way to uncovering what lurks behind this image problem and that lurking  something maybe the very nature of computing.

ACM and the WGBH Educational Foundation confirms a significant gender gap among US college-bound students in their opinions of computing as a possible college major or career.  The report confirms what we already know, boys see computing as very good choice for study (74%) and career (67%), whereas girls don’t (32% and 26%).

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What makes the interviews of 1,406 students interesting is that they went beyond these opening statistics.

They asked the students what was important in their career.  Here the differences between the sexes become more apparent:

• While 64% of boys rated “being passionate about your job” as “extremely important,” 78% of the girls felt the same.
• Earning a high salary rated “extremely important” to 50% of all boys, but only 39% of all girls.
• And “having the power to do good and doing work that makes a difference” rated “extremely important” to 56% of the girls in comparison to 47% to the boys.

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The authors correlated these two findings – to show the positive drivers towards computing: “having the power to create and discover new things” and “working in a cutting edge field”.  Indeed these are the things we use to sell computing as a career.  But look at the figure above – these two are way down the list of career preferences – indeed the least popular career element.  We’re appealing to a tiny minority.

On the other side of the coin, what are things that young people what to do but go places other than computing to do them?

working with people in an interconnected, social, and innovative way;
having the power to do good and doing work that makes a difference in other people’s lives.

(note, they might also value other items, say “being passionate about your job”, but these are not related to whether they choose computing so while useful as generic institutional marketing, won’t have much effect on computing).

The respondents were also asked to rate some potential computing marketing statements. The traditional messages “computing gives you power”, and “computing opens doors” where favoured by boys, but a quite different message topped the female rankings:

Computing empowers you to do good.
With computing, you will be able to connect technology to your
community and make a world of difference–reducing energy
consumption, improving health care, enhancing security, reducing pollution, and advancing learning and education

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This “making a world of difference” message is what would make a difference to computing intakes.   It is not just about perception though, we also need to deliver an education that empowers graduates able to make a difference – and killing two birds with one stone  –  this would also mean computing could really make a postive difference to the world.

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