Female Participation in Computer Science

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Women have played a large role in the creation of computer science. The first computer programmer was a woman (Philips 463). The first compiler for a programming language (Grace Murray Hopper) and object oriented programming language were developed by women (The Early History of Smalltalk). Today, the field is very different, with only 18% of undergraduate degrees for computer science awarded to women which has decreased from 37% in 1985 (Why So Few Women Are Studying Computer Science). If this problem is not addressed it will only become worse as the disproportionate number of jobs in the field are taken by men which can discourage female participation and even create a sexist environment.

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Understanding why this is occurring is a complex task because there are many different variables to consider, and finding indirect reasoning in people is a not easy. There are quite a few different theories that try explain the cause this decline including the marketing of personal computers, social norms, absence of role models, the way classes are taught, lack of support, stereotypes, media influence, and direct sexism. In addition, a study conducted by MIT found men and women viewed computers very differently. Women are more likely to see computers as a tool while the men in the study were more likely to show interest in the computer as a machine or toy rather than an instrument (Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing). This study also found women were more likely to have a negative attitude towards computers.

When personal computers started to became a household standard in the 1980s, gender gaps in the computer science field began to increase. A study conducted by the National Science Foundation found 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” (Where Are the Data and What Do They Say). The first personal computers came closer to resembling toys than the useful machines that they can be today, and were mostly marketed for playing simple video games that were targeted at boys (When Women Stopped Coding). This created the movement that computers are for men and helped construct the “techie culture” which can still be clearly seen today. The effect prior computer usage has is something I have personally seen in my computer science classes. Most students in the IT field don’t start with significant prior knowledge of programming; to many, video games is a gateway into computers, and from there they modify program files, configure systems, build computers, and so on. Even though this introduction to computers is not very technical and does not at all represent computer science classes, it is the largest motivator for bringing students into the field.

Stereotypes are another major problem that is keeping women out of computer science. I talked to a female friend who is majoring in computer science at University of Illinois, and she thought that one of the main reasons there are so few women in the field is the stereotype that all computer science majors were guys who were always locked in dark rooms coding (Li). The idea that computer science means making your life revolve around computers and having no outside interest or personal skills decreases interest for everyone, but it is especially detrimental to potential female students. This stereotype is perpetuated by the media when they make it appear as though the average person going into computer science is highly intelligent, obsessed by computers, and lacks basic social skills. The assumption that success is linked to fulfilling the created stereotype is also particularly damaging to women. Psychologist Pascal Huguet of France’s Aix-Marseille University conducted a social study on middle school children and found girls scored worse on visual-spatial abilities tests when they were told boys were better at these tasks compared to when they were led to believe there was no gender based difference (Journal of Educational Psychology).

To help revert this trend, schools and companies are working to make women interested in computer science. One example of this is the Women in Computer Science program at University of Illinois. They provide a support network, social meetings, host tech talks, company sponsorships, and scholarships for women in technology fields. Virtually all major tech companies are working to decrease the gender gap in their workforce because it is extremely prominent. In 2014, Google released a report starting with the statement, “We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity. And it is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.” Their statistics show only 30% of all employees are women, and in departments specifically focused on technology their numbers decrease to 17% (GoogleDiversity). One of the many programs Google created to help combat this is called Women Techmakers which provides visibility, community, and resources for women in technology. They are also spending large amounts of money and resources targeting to high school age students to increase interest in computer science by creating a program called “Made with Code,” giving thousands of female students free coding lessons, creating online programs targeted at women, and awarding scholarships to women majoring in computer science. Another strategy being implemented is redesigning how introductory computer science classes are taught so that they focus on creative problem solving rather than focusing on programing to create an atmosphere more supportive of women. Adding more team projects helps make the classes more enjoyable.

Underrepresentation in computer science is a problem for everyone in our society, not just women. Each year there are more job openings that require a computer science degree than there are people who graduate with the degree, and increasing the number of women graduating is an excellent way to change that. In addition to this, many studies show a more diverse workforce leads to more innovation and productivity compared to male only teams. Diverse companies also tend to produce products that reflects the average consumer better. Women make up about half of the world population, and when they are prevented from reaching their full potential, we as a society lose. The nations that succeed the most will be the nations that make the most out of all of its citizens.

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