Rebooting Expectations for Women in Computing

Eniac-2Boston University’s lopsided gender ratio is no secret. BU’s current population is roughly 60 percent female, a percentage that has continued to grow for the past 20 years. This phenomenon isn’t unique to BU, either; private universities nationwide saw a 59.3–40.7 female—male ratio in 2010. And yet, for one subset of BU females, it is not unusual to be one of the few women in class. With current enrollment trends in universities today favoring females, where are all the women in computer science and engineering? Unfortunately, nobody knows for sure. This is still a problem without a solution. But, what we do know is that the underrepresentation of women in computing is not just unfair, but also holding back the potential of a field at the forefront of our culture. Many of the most challenging, interesting, and profitable jobs are in computer science and engineering, and women deserve these opportunities just as much as the men who dominate the field do.

Although women outnumber men at most American universities, they have a history of underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Recently, this situation for women has begun to improve. In a 2010 study on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that women received 50.3 percent of all Bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2010 among science and engineering fields. Some fields, like biological and social sciences, have seen consistent female representation for at least the past 20 years, with over 50 percent of degrees awarded to females in 2010. Psychology has the highest representation: over 70 percent of all psychology degrees have gone to women since 1991. Physical sciences and mathematics see more modest amounts of female graduates, with around 40 percent in 2010. But in two fields, computer science and engineering, female representation is dismal. Although the enrollment of females in computer science and engineering has increased overall since 1991, only 18.2 percent of computer science and 18.4 percent of engineering undergraduate degrees were awarded to females in 2010, down from 27.6 percent and 20.1 percent in 2001. At the postgraduate level, Masters and Doctoral degrees are awarded to women at similar levels across all STEM fields.

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For those women who complete STEM degrees, far fewer enter STEM careers when compared against their male counterparts. In academia, the same NSF study found that women made up only 20.6 percent of science, engineering, and health doctorates at research universities in 2010. This number has been increasing, however, and is up from 8.1 percent in 1993. In a report titled Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) found that just 24 percent of college-educated STEM workers were female and that women who did receive STEM degrees were more likely to enter jobs in fields like education or healthcare. While the physical and life sciences saw the highest percentage of female workers at 40 percent, computer science, math, and engineering suffered. 27 percent of workers in computer science and math in 2009 were female, down from 30 percent in 2000. Engineering saw the lowest percentage, at only 14 percent in 2009. The underrepresentation of women in STEM careers was true regardless of educational attainment.

With numbers this clear, it’s natural to wonder what’s driving women away from careers in computer science and engineering. It’s not for a lack of jobs. Computer science and engineering are considered some of the fastest growing occupations with the biggest needs for qualified workers. A 2011 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce claimed that by 2018, 51 percent of all STEM jobs will be in computer occupations and 28 percent will be in engineering. The study found that a well-voiced concern, that the United States is “not producing enough STEM workers to compete successfully in the global economy,” was indeed a valid concern.

STEM workers also enjoy a consistent wage premium over other fields. While women statistically receive a lower salary than men, women with careers in STEM fields get a significant premium. The ESA found that in 2009, there was a 21 percent wage gap between men and women in non-STEM fields, but only a 14 percent gap for STEM fields. Overall, the study found that women in STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than other similarly educated women. Georgetown’s study found that over 50 percent of graduates with a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, both male and female, earn more than the average wage for workers across all occupations in their education level. The only other occupations with equally competitive pay are health professionals and managerial roles. This can explain why many STEM majors, especially females, choose to take their STEM education to careers in health sciences. Since women are historically underrepresented in management positions, health science offers the biggest possibility for competitive wages for many females.

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If jobs are available and wages are competitive, what forces are left that drive females away from computer science and engineering? Many potential issues lie in the culture and environment. Outdated stereotypes about computer scientists and engineers are plentiful in popular culture. From Disney Channel shows to series like Big Bang Theory or Silicon Valley, computing is presented as a man’s job—and often not a very desirable one, at that. A report from the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington shows that people portrayed as engineers or programmers in the media are overwhelmingly white males, socially awkward, obsessed with computers to the point of neglecting other interests, and regarded as innately genius. It’s easy to believe that women might be turned off by this portrayal of technical careers. If anything, these characters are certainly less relatable.

Many believe that succeeding in math, science, and engineering requires genius. The University of Washington’s report cites several studies showing that all students perceive males in computer science as having a higher GPA than females, even when this is not true. Women also report less confidence in their computer aptitude. When computing is portrayed as requiring genius, women don’t feel they can succeed. NCWIT reports that teachers and other adults can reinforce this idea that males have an innate “flair” for computing. An American Association of University Women (AAUW) report found similar results. The AAUW report also pointed out the potential for a self-perpetuating cycle, whereby some females feel under qualified for computing, so they do not enter these professions. Others see the lack of females in computing and might assume that it is simply something women are bad at, keeping women alienated from the field. Until the severe lack of female role models is addressed, it can be difficult to break this cycle.

The problem begins as early as primary or secondary school. Only 19 percent of last year’s AP Computer Science test-takers were female. According to the National Center for Women And Information Technology (NCWIT), less than one half of one percent of female college freshman intended to major in computer science in 2011. NCWIT also found that females in high school consistently report less experience with computer literacy and computer programming. The Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is the largest pre-college science competition in the country, featuring projects from some of the country’s most promising STEM students. Since 2001, the participation of females has increased to 49 percent, but female participation in computer science projects remains only 17 percent. Unfortunately, higher education may be too late to interest women in computer science and engineering.

There are many other factors that contributing to the lack of female computer scientists and engineers. It is often perceived that STEM fields lack some amount of flexibility that women need to start their families (a questionable premise, but a popular one). Prejudices or gender biases in both universities and the workplace are also a problem in some environments. The problem is still an open one, but certainly involves the lack of support, encouragement, and resources for women who might enter computing fields. Jan Cuny, program director for NSF’s Computing Education for the 21st Century Program, put it clearly:

Girls rarely get the encouragement they may need to overcome their hesitancies and try computing. When they do find themselves in a computing course, they are often uncomfortable in the male-dominated climate they encounter. It is not surprising then that only 0.3 percent of girls arrive at college with the intention to major in computer science.

We must consider what steps we can take to correct the problem. If the problem of women in technology is manifesting itself as early as high school, university education alone cannot be a remedy. Unfortunately, the state of computer science education isn’t promising for anyone in primary and secondary schools. In high schools, only about 10 percent offer computer science classes and in only 14 states can computer science count as a class toward state graduation. When computer science isn’t available in high school, old biases that only males can do computing will continue to prevail. Some solutions are largely circular. Young women need more role models in these fields. Since women go into primary and secondary education more frequently than males, qualified computer science teachers are a perfect opportunity for young females to find role models, yet too few still exist.

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At the university level, peer support and community building is crucial. BU and its students have made efforts to foster this environment, with varying degrees of success. BU Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE) is a thriving group, with regular events and an active membership. There is no real equivalent, however, that unites undergraduate females across computing and engineering disciplines. The faculty Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group became communal in 2011 and does not have a strong presence on campus. The Women in Science and Engineering floor in Warren and Upper Class House provide community for only a small population of BU’s females. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) finds support by being a chapter of the National SWE and provides resources for female engineers. And although BU Women in CS (WiCS) has not been recognized as an official student group, WiCS is attempting to provide support for female computer science majors.

On a bigger than BU scale, there are increasingly more resources for women to find community, assistance, and the confidence they need to succeed. Girl Develop It has chapters around the country where women can meet to find community, work on projects, and take classes. Meetup, a website for community groups to organize events, has new meetups specially for female computer scientists and engineers. A national non-profit organization, Girls Who Code, launched in 2012 “to inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.” Girls Who Code organizes Summer Immersion Programs throughout the country, and Girls Who Code Clubs in New York, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco. Working with industry partners like Intel, Twitter, and AT&T, Girls Who Code is working to spread awareness of the issues facing women in computing and help get them involved.

All this considered, the severe lack of women in computer science and engineering is still a problem bigger than any one group can solve. It will take cooperation through the ranks—from high schools all the way up to major corporations—to remedy this issue. There are and will likely continue to be a wealth of jobs for computer scientists and engineers. To fill these jobs and maintain our stance as a global force in the technology industry, women must be included. The problem won’t be solved until we face it head on, get informed, and open up discussion about courses of action. To ensure that women receive the same opportunities for important, needed, well-paying jobs in the technology sector, awareness is just the first step.

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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