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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Researchers study software gender gap

Researchers study software gender gap

Men more likely to use advanced features to 'debug', fix errors

For more than a decade, academics and technology executives have been frowning at the widening gender gap in computer science. Everyone has a theory, but no one has managed to attract many more women.

Now, some computer science researchers say one solution may lie in the design of software itself - even programs regular people use every day.

Laura Beckwith, a new computer science Ph.D. from Oregon State University, and her adviser, Margaret Burnett, specialize in studying the way people use computers to solve everyday problems - like adding formulas to spreadsheets, animation to Web sites and styles to word processing documents.

A couple of years ago, they stumbled upon an intriguing tidbit: Men, it seemed, were more likely than women to use advanced software features, specifically ones that help users find and fix errors. Programmers call this "debugging," and it's a crucial step in building programs that work.

Beckwith decided to investigate why women and men might interact so differently with the same software. She pored over 30 years' worth of books and academic papers from psychologists, education researchers, economists, computer scientists and others about gender differences in problem solving and computer use.

One theory grabbed her attention: High confidence correlates with success. Both men's and women's confidence in their ability to do a challenging task affects their approach and the outcome. And most studies indicated that women - even ones who study computer science - have less confidence than men in their computer skills.

So Beckwith wondered, could that be one of the culprits? Are women less confident than men when it comes to software debugging? Are women less willing than men to try using these advanced features?

Beckwith tackled these and other questions in her dissertation, with guidance from Burnett and Susan Wiedenbeck of Drexel University.

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