- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

SEATTLE (AP) — For more than a decade, academics and technology executives have been frowning at the widening gap between the sexes in computer science.

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

Laura Beckwith, a new doctor of computer science from Oregon State University, and her adviser, Margaret Burnett, stumbled upon an intriguing tidbit a few years ago: 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.

Mrs. Beckwith decided to investigate why the sexes might interact so differently with the same software. One theory grabbed her attention: High confidence correlates with success.

She then asked a group of women and men whether they thought they could find and fix errors in spreadsheets filled with formulas. The program included a debugging feature that helped users spot miscalculations and other errors. When they clicked on a number that seemed wrong, cells in the spreadsheet grid that contained the possible source of the error changed color. If the participants were sure a formula or value was correct, they could check it off.

The key to success was using the debugging feature. Both men and women who used it were better at finding and fixing the bugs. The level of confidence expressed by the participants in the questionnaire about debugging, however, played a much different role for the sexes.

For men, using the automatic debugging tools was unrelated to whether they thought they could do it well. But among women, only the confident participants used the tool; those with lower confidence relied instead on what they knew — editing formulas one by one — and ended up introducing more bugs.

Mrs. Beckwith then modified her study.

In the first round, the debugging tool let users mark values as “wrong” by right-clicking with the mouse. In later studies, Mrs. Beckwith added two more choices: “seems right maybe” and “seems wrong maybe,” which also used softer colors to indicate possible errors. She also changed the program so that no one needed to right-click, something less-experienced computer users are reluctant to do.

Women then used some form of the debugging feature as much as men did.

Research like Mrs. Beckwith’s may alter how the industry appeals to female computer users. Making complex everyday software more accessible to women also could get more girls interested in computer science, the scholars think.

“The first time you as a girl sit down at a computer to do some real problem solving,” Miss Burnett said, “and the software you’re using isn’t a good fit for your learning style, your problem solving style, how likely are you to be to say, ‘I’m going to grow up and be a computer scientist?’ ”

The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in computer science awarded to women fell from 37 percent in 1985 to just 22 percent in 2005, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, even as women made gains in other science and math-based fields.

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