Why So Few Women Are Studying Computer Science

University students around the country are packing up their cars and making the annual pilgrimage to dorm rooms or sparsely-decorated apartments to kick off the school year. They’re pounding the concrete in Ikea for last-minute bathroom accessories, and hugging their parents goodbye until fall break.

The university experience prepares young adults for future careers. It teaches them required skills, and introduces them to peers who may one day become coworkers.

For one field in particular, the classes, and for now, the future, look similar to the fraternity houses that line a college town’s streets. Computer science is a boys club.

Women earn just 18% of undergraduate degrees awarded for computer science. At top research universities, that number is 14%, according to the Anita Borg Institute. 

What is most startling about that number is that it does not represent progress. In 1985, women earned 37% of computer-science undergraduate degrees. 

Three decades later, computer science has become a much more vital gateway to high-paying jobs and the chance to influence the software-driven future of society. Yet vastly more men than women are stepping through it.

Why Is There A Gender Gap?

Computer science is the only field in science, engineering and mathematics in which the number of women receiving bachelors degrees has decreased since 2002—even after it showed a modest increase in recent years.

“The number of female degree earners in the last three years is starting to inch up, but it’s rising faster for men,” Linda Sax, an education professor at UCLA who is researching why women are underrepresented in computer science. “The numbers of students who go into computer science has fluctuated relative to perceived career opportunities, but that the gender gap tends to widen during periods of expansion.”

That’s because when computer science is viewed as a lucrative career—as it is now—more people, both men and women, choose to pursue it. In those years, though, the ratio of men to women increases.

One reason for this is because women have historically chosen lower-paying yet fulfilling jobs like teaching or journalism, whereas their male counterparts, sometimes considered family providers, choose high-paying careers like computer science and engineering.

The advent of the home personal computer may have contributed to the historic gender gap. In the 1980s, when the PC became a standard home appliance, it was mostly men who used it. According to the National Science Foundation, a 1985 study found that men “were substantially more likely to use a computer and to use it for more hours than women; 55% of adult women reported not using the computer at all in a typical week, compared to 27% of men.”

It was a man’s machine—despite Apple’s attempts to brand one as a “homemaker appliance,” for women who run both the business and the household.

Other contributing factors, according to academic experts I interviewed, include a culture that encourages young women to play with dolls rather than robots and pursue traditionally female careers, as well as the self-perpetuating stereotype that a programmer is a white male. Sometimes women can feel like they don’t belong in a technical world dominated by men.

Those stereotypes are based on reality, according to data released by some of the largest tech companies. Among the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, 70% of the workforce is male. In technical roles, the disparity is even greater. At Twitter, for instance, only 10% of the technical workforce is female.

Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, is working to change those numbers. The organization, founded in 1987 by computer scientist Anita Borg, aims to equalize the ratio of men and women in technology fields.

Whitney herself knows firsthand how challenging it can be as a woman pursuing a degree in computer science.

“I did my PhD at Caltech, and at the time when I was there, it was about 14% women,” Whitney told me in an interview. “I didn’t know quite what was going on, but the feeling of isolation, like ‘I don’t necessarily belong,’ was pretty prevalent.”

Some Schools Get Good Grades

The gender disparity in tech starts young. 30,000 students took the Advanced Placement Computer science exam in high school last year. Less than 6,000 of them were women.

But AP exams don’t necessarily predict the success of students in college, or what their particular interests are. So to drive more participation in computer science classes, many colleges and universities are working to make computer science appealing to women.

At Harvey Mudd College, a private liberal arts college near Los Angeles, initiatives are underway to make the computer-science department more welcoming. As a result, 40% of its computer-science students are women. Harvey Mudd is still working to ensure women feel as welcome and as capable as their male computer science peers.

“These strategies aren’t like, ‘Oh we turned everything pink,’” Colleen Lewis, assistant professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd, said in an interview. “These are best practices for getting students with a broad range of interests interested in computer science.”

Harvey Mudd split the introduction to computer science course into three different tracks, instead of having all students of different levels complete the same course. Essentially, the course is now broken down into beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels, so each student can study and learn from peers with similar experiences, and not be overwhelmed by students who have been coding since they were in elementary school. By addressing each level individually, it prevents students with no programming experience from being deterred from the field by competing with experts.

The college also brings a number of first-year students to the Grace Hopper Celebration, a conference hosted by the Anita Borg Institute that is the largest gathering of female technologists in the world. The conference gives students the opportunity to meet other women with careers in tech, and provides role models to new students who are still discovering computer science themselves.

This year, Lewis and five other faculty members are bringing 52 students to the event.

Harvey Mudd is not alone in its efforts. In June, Carnegie Mellon University announced that for the first time ever, 40% of incoming computer-science majors are female. The university attributes the achievement to increasing female-focused networking events, mentoring opportunities, and on-campus community building.

At the University of California at Berkeley, women outnumbered men this year for the first time in the university’s introductory computer-science course. The newly redesigned course wasn’t geared specifically towards women, professor Dan Garcia told SFGate, but the lecture introduced more right-brained exercises, including talking about popular technology news at the beginning of every class.

Notably, Berkeley changed the name of the course from “Introduction to Symbolic Programming” to “The Beauty and the Joy of Computing”—a more accessible-sounding moniker for the class.

However, while some computer-science classes are brimming with women, other technical courses still fall short.

Berkeley robotics professor Ruzena Bajcsy has been a teacher for 40 years. In the last few years, she says, she’s noticed a significant increase in the number of women in her classes.

“I’ve seen more women in my classrooms,” Bajcsy said in an interview. “Maybe 10% women, up from two or three percent.”

A Culture Shift


Feeling isolated or ostracized is a common frustration among women in technology. Especially when investors, CEOs and other technology leaders are implicitly biased against women.

Tech accelerator Y Combinator founder Paul Graham once famously acknowledged his own bias and told the New York Times, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.”

Graham was also widely criticized when he said in an interview, “God knows what you would do to get 13-year-old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that.”

Female engineers and computer scientists frequently find themselves alone in a room of men. They also have to deal with sexism and harassment from both peers and people who male counterparts consider to be role models. (GeekFeminism keeps a running timeline of sexist incidences in tech communities.)

A more recent obstacle is the growth of the “brogrammer”—a shorthand term for a macho, just-out-of-the-dorm-room culture that’s being imported from college campuses to startup offices.

“When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley [between 2001-2005], the brogrammer identity did not exist,” Lewis said. “There’s this growth of this new identity, which is explicitly masculine and problematic … but it’s interesting that the brogrammer identity is the predominant one in pop culture right now.”

Universities can work to equalize the ratio of women in technology, but without a significant culture shift—ditching the idea that white male twentysomethings make the best coders—women will still be discriminated against in the workforce.

Pop culture could help scrub that identity and help women find role models in media. For instance, Silicon Valley, HBO’s critically-acclaimed startup parody, is adding two new main female characters to the cast. Google, for its part, is working with the Geena Davis Institute to improve representation of girl hackers in Hollywood.

The pop-culture stereotype is unfortunately reflective of reality in some startups, which pay a lot of attention to their “culture”—in other words, workplace fun, drinking, and parties—but not to human resources. One woman who worked at GitHub, the social-coding community, described the work environment there as similar to the dystopian novel “Lord of the Flies.”

Whitney says that in order to not just encourage women to pursue tech, but to stay in it as a career, the culture needs to change.

“The Anita Borg Institute works a lot with organizations to create cultures where women thrive,” she said. “If we graduate all these people and the organizational culture that they go into is very macho, then they’re not going to want to stay.”

Lead image by Todd KuleszaSilicon Valley image courtesy of HBO

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