Where the Girls Aren’t

UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun.
5, 2003

New interdisciplinary course aims to boost female interest
in computer science

By Erica Smishek

A typical girl loves her computer — but she doesn’t
understand how it works and isn’t dreaming of a career
in information technology.

That could change if Women’s Studies Programme chair
Tineke Hellwig and Computer Science Prof. Anne Condon have
their way.

The pioneering pair has banded together to establish Connecting
with Computer Science, a new UBC course they believe is the
only one of its kind anywhere. Cross-listed in both the Faculties
of Arts and Science beginning this fall, the hands-on course
introduces computer science through connections with fine
arts, linguistics, music, philosophy, psychology, biology
and women’s studies.

By emphasizing the use of computer tools as a means of creativity
and human expression and the role computer science plays in
addressing basic questions about human intelligence and the
mechanisms of life, Hellwig and Condon hope to widen women’s
interest in and access to the field.

“It is pushing the envelope a lot further than any other
course of its type,” says Condon. “It is very rare
to find this highly interdisciplinary approach.

“This is not a course about computers in society and
it’s not about social issues. It is a technical course…
This is designed to help get at programming, at what it means,
at why it’s important.”

Lagging interest in technology among high school girls has
translated into an alarming decline in women studying computing
at university. Currently only 15-20 per cent of IT graduates
at Canadian universities and fewer than 25 per cent of IT
professionals in the work force are women.

The course (listed as 101 in Computer Science and 201 in
Women’s Studies) is designed to capture the attention
of people who might not otherwise think about computers, and
to do so at the beginning, rather than the end, of their university

“It will show up on the radar screen of students who
would otherwise lock themselves away because they think it’s
science and it’s nothing they can do,” says Hellwig.

Condon did substantial research on feminist approaches to
science and feminist conceptualization when developing the
course. Programming assignments are designed to allow students
to explore the connection between programming and creativity
and to support different styles and approaches to programming
instead of requiring the “right answer.”

Students, for example, can write a program to generate haiku
poetry or to share their problems and intelligent conversation
with a software psychotherapist.

“Programming is quite a skill and art,” says Condon,
a mathematician. “It’s very complicated, and it’s
difficult to be a great programmer. Everything has to be exactly
right. There is a tendency to teach students to do everything
right and to teach in a very rigid framework.

“But that’s not the way it works for everyone to
learn. There is no reason you can’t learn programming
by exploring and by leaving room for creativity. There is
precision but there is also creativity.”

Condon addresses the issue of gender differences in people’s
approach to computer use early in the course. While both girls
and boys enjoy computer games, the level of intensity with
which they typically pursue this is different, with boys more
likely to get into programming their own games. Also, girls
use computers more for other goals — to communicate over
the Internet or to get information about their interests.

“Girls will manage what’s provided but they don’t
create new things,” she explains. “It rarely becomes
a passion in itself. But for boys it’s an end in itself.
For some boys, the computer lab is their social club. Many
boys will know how to program by the time they get to computer
science class.”

She says she has trouble admitting this contrast.

“As a woman, I want to pretend there are no differences.
If we’re different, it could be interpreted to mean we’re
not as good. Women in computer science want to fit in, to
downplay any differences from the men. But differences between
girls’ and boys’ approaches to computers are partly
cultural and it’s an influence all the way through their
education. It’s something we have to acknowledge but
it’s difficult for someone in the sciences to do.”

Both women believe building female competence and confidence
with technology is essential to our culture.

“Computers aren’t used for all the things they
could be,” says Condon. “If more women are involved,
technology will be used differently. The possibilities are
endless and could be very inspiring.”