What Happened to Women in Computer Science?

Hidden Figures, the just-released movie, highlights the roles of three black female mathematicians (human computers) working at NASA who helped win the Space Race. At one time, computer science was originally a female-dominated area, and computing was considered “women’s work.” Fast forward to 2017 and women in computer science aren’t common. The number of women […]

BY Terri Williams

What Happened to Women in Computer Science?

Hidden Figures, the just-released movie, highlights the roles of three black female mathematicians (human computers) working at NASA who helped win the Space Race. At one time, computer science was originally a female-dominated area, and computing was considered “women’s work.” Fast forward to 2017 and women in computer science aren’t common.

The number of women receiving degrees in this now male-dominated area has declined. Granted, women total 48.5% of Carnegie Mellon’s computer science class, but this accomplishment is an exception to the rule.

Lana Verschage is the director of Women in Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology. The Women in Computing group is a part of RIT’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences. Verschage tells GoodCall® that the gender gap in computing actually is widening. “Since 1990, the percentage of female computing professionals has dropped from 35 percent to about 24 percent today, and according to Girls Who Code, if that trend continues, the share of women in the nation’s computing workforce will decline to 22 percent by 2025,” Verschage says.

So why are there so few women in computer science and computing fields? GoodCall® posed this question to Verschage; Kathleen Fisher, professor and chair of the Computer Science Department in the School of Engineering at Tufts University; and the research scientists and social scientists at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Wendy DuBow, senior research scientist and the director of evaluation, serves as the NCWIT spokesperson.

Clarifying the question

The first order of business was clarifying/correcting the notion that computer science was a female-dominated field. DuBow explains, “While computing was female-dominated, it wasn’t really considered a science yet, nor was ‘computer science’ per se considered women’s work.” However, she says that programming was an area that was originally dominated by mathematicians – and mathematicians were likely to be women.

While there has been a decline in the number of women obtaining computer science degrees, these stats have been see-sawing for years. “For instance, in 2003, the number of women earning CS degrees was about the same as in 1987, but the number of men who earned those degrees had grown even more, so the percentage of women remained lower,” DuBow says.

And since the issue of women in computer science was inspired by Hidden Figures, DuBow outlines how race factors into this trend. “Among all STEM fields, computer science produces the greatest proportion of African American bachelor’s degree holders – but African American women’s representation in computer science is on a downward trend right now.” She explains, “While more research is required, women in general have been affected by the factors below.”

Historical and societal influences

During the 1980s, as tech products were advertised in the media, computer science became popular with consumers. DuBow says this was also when computing started to be viewed as a male profession and a popular choice of majors among college students. “Advertisements depicting women not knowing how to use technology became ubiquitous, stereotypes of the male nerd or hacker emerged, gaming aimed at men also started gaining prominence, and these were reinforced by the growth of popular computing companies run by ‘male geniuses,’” DuBow says.

And this stereotype of there not being women in computer science was reinforced on more than one level. Fisher believes that when the home computer was introduced, it was marketed for use by boys instead of both genders. “As a result, boys were encouraged to spend a lot of time playing with computers and exploring how they worked, while girls were not.” As a result, Fisher says boys gained much more exposure to computers, and some emerged as gurus in computers and programming.

On college campuses, other events were occurring that also discouraged participation by women.  According to DuBow, “Computer science began to be housed in its own department (rather than in math or humanities departments, for example, where female students were plentiful).

And remember those “gurus” Fisher talked about? “Gurus tend to treat knowledge as privileged, actively discouraging others from trying to learn the material; in fact, there are academic studies that have observed this behavior in high school classes,” Fisher says. “Depressingly, sometimes the teachers for these courses encouraged the gurus in helping to drive out the newbies – and because girls weren’t encouraged to play with computers at home, almost all girls were newbies.”

Poised for a positive shift?

Recently, there have been positive changes and glimmers of hope. For example, Fisher notes that college students of both genders are taking introductory computer science classes in increasing numbers. And some women are deciding that they enjoy this discipline and are deciding to major in it.

Also, while percentages of women in computer science in the workplace may be stagnant, DuBow says the number of women in the computing workforce has increased. “Also, a systematic study in 2010 of the types of computing professions women occupied suggested that women may be moving into more high-status computing positions and out of more data processing or computing support positions,” DuBow explains. But she cautions that women are not at the top levels in this field and are subject to conscious and unconscious biases. “And, again, women of color are less represented today in the tech workforce than are white women,” DuBow says.

What can be done to boost women in computer science?

Awareness and education at every level are the keys to reversing the decline of women in computer science. Fisher is an advocate for making computer science education required in high school and even at lower levels. “If colleges were to require computer science in the way they currently require math or English or science, women would figure out how to do well in those courses, and the ones with aptitude in computer science would discover that fact in a timely fashion,” Fisher says. In fact, she thinks that with this approach, there would eventually be more women than men in computer science.

Verschage also supports more opportunities for girls in middle school or younger to gain exposure to computing. “Oftentimes, kids need to take part in special extracurricular programs in order to learn about computing – that shouldn’t be the case.” In an ideal world, Verschage says every child should be learning some code, like a second language.

The NCWIT is working with those in education and industry to raise awareness and provide practical advice. “We encourage faculty to be more inclusive in their recruiting majors and in their computing classrooms, both in K-12 and in colleges and universities,” DuBow says. “We also encourage more diverse executive boards in tech companies, and push our member companies – and anyone else who will listen – to use evidence-based techniques for reducing bias in recruitment, hiring and promotion in the industry.”

RIT takes a unique approach to this problem. The school has an Allies Committee – a group of men who are in the computer college – that meets weekly to identify ways to change the computing environment by making it more inclusive. According to Verschage, “The Allies Committee searches for ways to combat microaggressions and unconscious bias in the computing world.”

The school also provides outreach efforts to young girls. “RIT hosts an all-women hackathon every year, open to college and high school women of all skill levels – from those who have never programmed to coding experts.” It also helps local girl scout troops earn coding badges. “In addition, a group of Women in Computing at RIT also goes to local libraries to teach middle school kids about the basics of computer science thinking,” Verschage says.

Partnering with the tech industry also helps to bridge the gap. RIT invites women who are in technology to speak to their students and provide advice for working in the industry. “We also attend conferences, like the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, where our students have an opportunity to network with companies because we understand the industry wants to make their workforce more diverse and in order to do that, colleges need to produce more women in computing.”