Women in Science

Women Love Language, So Why Not Computer Code?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Girls and women out-perform in languages, so they should feel confident about tackling the boom language of the digital age. Is this pep talk needed? Yes, if you consider the sharp drop-off of women in computer science since 1985.



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(WOMENSENEWS)--Girls and women who shy away from computer coding shouldn't blame it on their brains. Or at least not the parts that are needed to handle PHP or JavaScript.

In a 2008 Scientific American article, "Girl Talk: Are Women Really Better at Language?," reporter Nikhil Swaminthan explains the biological reason behind remarkable gender differences among those who study languages.

He describes a series of experiments in which both boys' and girls' brains were observed during language-related activities. The results indicated that "girls completing a linguistic abilities task showed greater activity in brain areas implicated specifically in language encoding," an area involved in decoding abstract information.

During these same exercises, boys' brain activity depended upon the way in which a word was presented. For instance, if a word was expressed verbally, the auditory portion of the brain was activated; if a written word was presented for review, the boys' visually active brain areas showed activity.

Brain science and gender are highly tentative, of course, so I'm not raising these findings to say women or men are necessarily hardwired to be better or worse than each other at anything.

I'm raising them so girls and women who are interested in the male-dominated field of computer science know about this demonstrated female ability to manipulate and decode abstract information, such as a language. That knowledge might help them feel just as capable of mastering COBOL or C++ as Spanish or French.

Cheering Needed

But do girls and women really need this kind of cheering? Katie Hafner's April 2 article in The New York Times, "Giving Women the Access Code," suggests they do. She reports that female computer science college graduates have fallen to 22 percent this past year, from 37 percent in 1985.

Women are still scarce overall in the higher-paying jobs in the STEM fields--science, technology, engineering and math.

Explanations for this disparity--even as women have wholeheartedly embraced the resulting technology in the form of MP3 players, cell phones, smartphones and laptop computers--have to do predominantly with the continuing strength of subconscious gender bias.

In a collaborative series with PBS and Scientific American, journalist Jenny Marder explored the findings of studies by Madeline Heilman, who researches psychology and gender. Those findings underscore the continuing strength of gender stereotypes to deter women with demonstrated mastery of scientific subject matter from choosing college majors and future careers related to those academic strengths.

Our unspoken and disproven gender stereotypes that men are the more rational and logical creatures best suited for computer science stay with every female freshman who enrolls in elementary education despite straight As in advanced-placement high school science classes, Marder concludes.

Women are over-represented in the study of languages, including ancient languages, some of which are now unspoken.

Studies of those who communicate via American Sign Language have found that language is language whatever its mode of expression. So the only reason for women to be steering clear of coding is the likelihood that many, at some point along the way, internalize stereotypes about technology being the domain of men.

Perhaps if coding or computer programming were included under the foreign languages section of college courses, more young women would enroll and wind up pursuing careers in technology.

Lindsey Harper Mac is a professional writer living in the Indianapolis area. She specializes in writing guest posts on social media and education on behalf of Colorado Technical University. She's currently completing her master's degree.

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