What’s different about Computer Science

Among the most vexing issues on the topic of lack of women in tech is why is it different from other fields that have gone from being male dominated to gender balanced. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that virtually all doctors and lawyers were men. This disturbing chart in this story on NPR makes the point quite dramatically.chart women percentage

Starting in the early ‘70’s, simultaneous with the rise of the feminist movement, women began making steady gains entering the professional and scientific fields. Over the course of the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 women went from about 10 percent to nearly 50 percent of the class at US Medical and Law schools.   Even physical science graduate programs made strong gains. Computer science was on a similar trajectory then turned sharply down. Why?

As I dug into the numbers it gets even more discouraging. Not only are there fewer women computer science majors on a percentage basis, during a time when the field has experienced dramatic growth, the absolute number has been cut in half.

The downturn started in 1984 which happens to correlate with the introduction of personal computers. The hypothesis posed is that the early personal computers were marketed to men and parents of boys. An example of this is this early Apple ad.   Potentially these marketing strategies fostered a societal view that computers were for boys.

This was reinforced throughout popular culture. While we saw women doctors and lawyers on TV and in the movies, the movies that show programmers have nearly all male protagonists – everything from Revenge of the Nerds and War Games to Firewall and The Social Network.

It’s easy to follow the trajectory forward.  Boys have more access to computers and programming experience growing up.  Girls arrive at college with less experience then their male peers because they haven’t been programming on their own and are therefore at a disadvantage in the introductory C.S. classes. Even if they understand the theory the lack of hours of experience will be hard to quickly overcome. It is natural for students, their peers, families and professors to mistake this lack of experience with lack of aptitude. This was the finding of Jane Margolis, one of the foremost experts on disparities by race and gender in computer science, in her research at Carnegie Mellon.

Some colleges such as Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon are proactively dealing with this issue. They are making real progress – at Carnegie Mellon women in the class of 2014 comprise 40% of their CS majors. These programs at Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon can and should be replicated. Making CS part of a core required high school curriculum could level the playing field. While discouraging for computer science, the chart above shows that change is possible.  Like any major sociological change, though, there are not quick fixes. As parents, technology marketers and educators we need to step up.