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Wanted: Computer Scientists

Computer scientists are geeks, right?

That perception, according to a recent New York Times article, is pervasive and detrimental. Experts interviewed for the story say it's one of the drivers behind declining postsecondary enrollments in computer science, especially among women.

The story says the peak year for women receiving computer science bachelor's degrees was 1985, at 38 percent; in 2003, that figure plummeted to 28 percent--and things are getting worse.

According to the story:

[Many in the field] say computing is the only realm of science or technology in which women are consistently giving ground. They also worry that the number of women is dropping in graduate programs and in industry.

They are concerned about this trend, they say, not just because they want to see young women share the field’s challenges and rewards, but also because they regard the relative absence of women as a troubling indicator for American computer science generally — and for the economic competitiveness that depends on it.

“Women are the canaries in the coal mine,” Lenore Blum, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told an audience at Harvard University in March, in a talk on this “crisis” in computer science. Factors driving women away will eventually drive men away as well, she and others say. ...

“The nerd factor is huge,” Dr. Cuny said. According to a 2005 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, an academic-industry collaborative formed to address the issue, when high school girls think of computer scientists they think of geeks, pocket protectors, isolated cubicles and a lifetime of staring into a screen writing computer code.

The article highlights efforts of several higher-education institutions, seeking to draw more women into computer science. There are plenty of computer science jobs to be had, the story says, despite the belief that offshoring and the dot-com crash have whisked them away.

Meanwhile, a blog on InfoWorld.com points out:

Companies are also getting into the education activism mix. For example, IBM and Cisco have launched highly successful initiatives aimed at inspiring girls and young women to take an interest in IT. And when it comes to keeping women in the IT workforce, many women tech leaders stress the ongoing importance of on-job mentoring.

Computer Science Needs a Renaissance

While I agree with the need to bring more women into computer science, I think both young men and women should be educated about the career path, starting in grade-school. Many lasting perceptions take shape during those years, especially the overarching "nerd" idea associated with IT.

Part of that education could be about the paycheck computer scientists bring home. According to PayScale salary surveys, the median salary for a systems engineer in computer networking/IT with one-four years of experience is $51,752; with five-nine years of experience, median pay jumps to $61,354.

This should be an all-hands-on-deck initiative, reaching from the start of education all the way to employers--a K-employer effort.

I don't think the United States can afford for it not to be. IT and the careers it fuels are a big reason why our culture has come so far so fast. Losing computer scientists, I think, will slow that momentum down by more than a few paces.

But 'America' and 'slow' don't fit well in the same sentence, do they?

--kc

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