This is a research paper I wrote for a Cultural Diversity class I took in Spring 2013. The topic is investigating the lack of women in computer science, and while researching it I found that there are many variables that go into a decision to avoid a tech field. I try to cover these, but at the same time my paper was over the limit so it isn’t as detailed as I would have hoped.
Anyway, I wanted to post this out somewhere so it’s not just sitting on my hard drive doing nothing. Note that it’s a 20-page paper so it’s not something small to digest in five minutes.
As of 2010, women earned only 12% of the bachelors degrees in computer science received. There is a well-known lack of women in computer science and tech fields, with a large set of variables at play in the equation of whether a woman goes into computer science. These range from gender roles, work environment, sexism, and the tech culture. There is also movement toward making the computer world more friendly to kids of both genders, but there is still issues to address when it comes to making computer science a good choice for women.
Table of Contents
Millie’s Math House was the first piece of software I ever saw, on my first computer, somewhere in a Seattle childrens’ museum. It was instant love. Math, Computers, Video Games, and Edutainment. We didn’t get our first computer until I was about 9 years old, but I was obsessed with the machines much earlier beforehand. I would check books out from the library on topics that looked computer-related; I didn’t know what an Amiga was, but those graphics sure were pretty.
I would read books on computer graphics and daydream of the things I could create. My brother decided he wanted to be a game programmer and I decided that – yeah, that sounds awesome! Me too! My stepdad bought Justin a copy of Power BASIC for DOS. Justin went through the sample code and changed the names in the credits to his name. I actually poured through the 500-page book trying to figure out how to make video games. I didn’t understand a lot of it as a self-taught 10 year old – I wrote poorly-made mad libs and text adventures, changed the screen and text colors, but could never quite figure out how to draw graphics. What drove me was the idea that I could learn more and eventually make what I saw in my mind – and I saw a lot in my mind.
My parents recognized this compulsive drive to experiment with code, and eventually my stepdad bought me (not my brother) Visual Basic 5 when I was 12 years old. I started learning C++ at 14. When I was 16 my online friend in Finland, Klaus, introduced me to the Allegro game programming library. If I was obsessed before, I became really driven and spent a lot of time self-teaching myself how to use the tools, figuring out 2D video game development theory on my own.
It is hard to explain the scope and scale of that which is purely magic about technology and the power to create. I cannot imagine a life without programming. It was love at first sight. But if it was so easy for young Rachel to get hooked, why are there so few women in Computer Science?
In the mid-1980s, 37% of degrees in Computer Science were earned by women. In 2010, less than 12% of CS degree-earners are women. (“Women in computing,” ) Why has there been a dramatic decrease in women interested in the field of CS, rather than in increase? Personal Computers are used much more widely by a larger demographic than ever before, yet something is keeping women from pursuing CS.
The amount of people receiving bachelors degrees in Engineering has fallen between 1983 and 2002 from 72,670 to 60,639. For Science degrees, it has increased from 244,901 to 354,972 in the same amount of time. Specifically with Computer Science for everybody, the amount has increased from 24,682 to 49,135.
Now, if we compare Men vs. Women awarded Bachelors degrees in these fields, we see the following:
|Gender receiving degree||1983||2002||Change|
|Gender receiving degree||1983||2002||Change||% of total majoring in 2002|
|Gender receiving degree||1983||2002||Change||% of total majoring in 2002|
|Gender receiving degree||1983||2002||Change||% of total majoring in 2002|
(“Women in science,” )
In 2002, women earned a majority of the bachelors degrees, at 57.6%. Of those women, only about 2% of their degrees were in Computer Science. The amount of people receiving Computer Science degrees has increased between 1983 and 2002. In 1983, women held 36% of the CS degrees. In 2002, it dropped to 27%. In 2010, of the CS bachelors degrees earned, less than 12% were earned by women (“Women in computing”).
The issue of why women do not pursue Computer Science is a very complex issue with many variables, and an aggregation of these issues can push women away from the CS field and towards others – whether for personal ideals, work flexibility, or even similar culture.
These variables include: Girls being discouraged from doing math or told they’re not as good, perceived “masculine geek” culture, perceived anti-social career field, perceived lack of ability to help people, cubicle-and-office nature of software development jobs, overt and unintended sexism in the industry, intimidation at entering a male-dominated field, lack of women role-models, lack of work-life balance, lack of confidence (or bravado), and school and work environments that push the traditionally masculine competition approach to working and advancement rather than a cooperative environment, which women may be more comfortable in.
Another cause of the shortage of Computer Science majors in general could also be simply the lack of knowledge about the field – that software development even exists and is something you can do as a living.
If you listen to the news in the U.S., you probably occasionally hear about the shortage of scientists and engineers in our society, and discussion on how to get people interested. With Computer Science, both boys and girls may avoid the field for a few reasons:
In America, there is somewhat of an Anti-Math culture. It is common to see in the media, in one’s peers, instructors, parents, and even government a fear towards math and technology. Kids’ shows echo “school sucks”, characters in our movies and TV frequently respond to math with aversion and fear. Many parents admit to not being able to help their children out with algebra. In recent talks on the SOPA/PIPA laws relating to technology, congressmen and women tried to distance themselves from technology by declaring, “I’m not a nerd”, and “We oughta ask some nerds … bring in the nerds”, rather than calling those well-versed in computers the experts (Stewart, 2012). In the book Mindstorms about teaching children the LOGO programming language, the author observes a self-inflicted constraint we allow to put on ourselves:
“[Many people] have not completely given up on learning but are still severely hampered by entrenched negative beliefs about their capacities. Deficiency becomes identity: “I can’t learn French, I don’t have an ear for languages.;”, “I could never be a businessman, I don’t have a head for figures;” … These beliefs are often repeated ritualistically, like superstitions. And, like superstitions, they create a world of taboos; in this case, taboos on learning.” (Papert, 1993)
Coinciding with the Math-phobia, there also seems to be a conception that if it is difficult then it is impossible. In our culture, struggling with a subject is seen as a failure, while in Eastern cultures, struggling is seen as “a predictable part of the learning process” (Spiegel, 2012)
Struggling with a topic leads children, teens, and even adults to assume that they cannot learn the topic because they are not “naturally gifted” with insight to how it works. This greatly applies to both math and computers, where people declare – almost with pride – that they cannot do math, and they hate computers.
Many people are also repelled by the idea of an office job. Miserable cube-farms are also common in our modern media and in the ideas of many. With having a desk job, there are concerns about health due to sitting all day, being cooped up in a small area, and the monotony of sitting at a computer for eight to ten hours a day.
With computers, there is also a misconception that if you’re interested in machines then you must be antisocial, and that the professional world of software development must be very lonely and isolated.
In many cases, an individual may not choose to go into a computer science field purely because they were never introduced to computer-based hobbies and tools when they were younger, and therefore may not even know that the field exists.
Beyond reasons everybody may share for not going into computer science, women and ethnic minorities experience a unique set of challenges when it comes to the field. It is a matrix of variables that an individual may or may not experience even before they ever consider going into the field.
Before a woman even gets to the point of deciding her college major and potential future career, there are many messages sent to a young girl in the form of gender roles and sexism in our culture.
In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher describes how preadolescent girls are energetic and interested in everything. There is no burden on them, and they freely explore their world with excitement. But, once they hit adolescence, there is a sudden shift in their perceived role. It is conveyed that men have the power and women are to be submissive adored objects, and there is a struggle to try to maintain one’s self while meeting the pressure to be feminine, as is required by their gender. “Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts.” (Pipher, 1994)
In addition to the pressure from peers and culture to dress up, look nice, and be liked, girls are also told repeatedly that they’re just not as good at math as boys are. Not only does this try to set one’s core belief, but also adds to the anxiety to prove oneself in an area, and a heightened fear of failure.
Finally, as children, gender roles are introduced even earlier through toys. Many toys presented to boys are about doing, building and adventure, while girls’ toys are blanket-coated with bright pink, and about friends and fashion, with very little of the hands-on building that is available with boys’ toys. Even Lego, who had gender-neutral advertising in the 1980s is now thoroughly a “boy’s toy”, while they’re trying to market a literally less-buildable, more-playset form of Lego called Lego Friends, in pastels, purple and pink. Even parents enforce these gender-specific toys by making sure their boys don’t play with dolls, or that their girl doesn’t play with tractors and trucks.
Much of the higher education and professional world are built around competition, encouraging people to be competitive rather than cooperative. In society, boys are expected to be rowdy and assertive, while girls are encouraged to be caregivers and well-behaved. This difference in learned behavior can affect teacher expectations.
“By treating boys and girls differently, teachers encouraged ‘the exploratory, autonomous, independent mathematical skills associated with males…’ and discouraged them in females. … Paradoxically, behaving like the boys can bring with it severe penalties, including adult reprimand and peer ostracism.” (Etzkowitz, 2000)
In Athena Unbound, it is suggested that the model of “weeding out” and proving oneself in the graduate-level and above is geared towards men and the conditioning they received to freely be competitive, leaving women at a disadvantage, having to fight against their nature that was encouraged of them by their teachers and culture. Even when women are set on proving themselves, there is a stigma of inappropriateness because of gender roles and expected behaviors.
Confidence is much the same way, where girls are encouraged to perform to please others, and therefore derive their confidence and self-worth based on signs of approval. The alienation of being in an institution built against one’s nature, where if they play along they’re also seen as denying their feminine side, and the pressure of having to constantly prove oneself can take a toll on confidence. (Etzkowitz, 2000)
Once we get past gender roles, what are some reasons related to the career field that may keep women out of science and technology?
Another major hurdle for women going into any professional field is the work-life balance. This also applies to men in the form of gender roles, and what is OK for a man and woman to do in our culture. Women are assumed to be the designated parent, where men are looked at as somehow quaint or dysfunctional if they take on more parenting roles. Women are seen as less desirable workers because of the expectation that they will need more time off than men due to having and raising children.
In the U.S., we also do not have a law requiring time off for maternity or paternity leave. Unlike in other countries, taking time off is seen as the mark of being a poor employee, and since women are expected to be the primary caregiver for their children, by association many assume that women can’t perform at the same level as men in a professional setting.
The perception that the tech-field is anti-social, as well as the desk-job nature of it has already been discussed, but another aspect that may be important to women is purpose. In 2011 – 2012, the most popular bachelors degrees for women were Psychology, Business Administration, Nursing, and Education. (“Most popular college degrees,” ).
Women tend to be less likely to pursue a field out of simply enjoying it as a hobby, and want a way to help people through their work. Computers can be seen as anti-people; it may seem as if working with them helps nobody, at least not directly. Technology runs many things in our modern world, but working with computers may be seen as impersonal.
We constantly hear about the glass ceiling, and yet while women can be assertive about raises and promotions, the concern about whether they are being paid equally is always in the back of one’s mind. This can be especially difficult with the taboos in the U.S. over discussing one’s salary.
Beyond work itself, the culture of the workplace, industry, or even of hobbyists can dictate how comfortable a person feels entering into that domain.
The world of computers is still seen as a widely geeky domain. While programming can appeal to all types of people, the idea of being in the minority can be off-putting. Perhaps a woman has a husband and children, enjoys reading about history, bird watching, and nature, but is also a competent professional software developer. The standard idea of a programmer as a young-adult male who debates the superiority of Star Trek, Stargate, Battle Star Galactica, FireFly, or Dr. Who, spends hours on Reddit, and calls in sick any time Blizzard releases a new game simply may not seem like ideal – or even comfortable – workmates.
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zukerberg, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Alan Turing, Larry Page, Sergey Brin. Some are house-hold names, and some are famous in specific tech-circles, and they’re all men.
Now, what women in computer fields are household names? You may know of Marissa Mayer, the current CEO of Yahoo!, but she is not as ubiquitously known as some of the men listed. Who are the women behind computing, technology, and video games? Without digging deeper it is hard to find a woman role model for girls. A role model can be a powerful thing, giving a person someone to relate to on some level, someone whose dreams you can appreciate and even share. Something to shoot for.
Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper are well-known if you’re in the Computer Science department at college, but Ada lived in the 1800s and Grace’s main contributions were in the 1950s. There is a lack of visible women-turned-entrepreneurs and women in tech, and that can make the trek to the top seem foreboding. While you don’t need to share gender to relate to a role-model, what does the lack of notable and popular women in tech say to young girls about their own ability to succeed?
Sexism can be overt or subtle, it can be intended or unintended, and it can be propagated by both men and women. Another reason women may be turned off from the world of Computer Science, Software Development, or even something like the Video Game Industry, could be because of a brush against the sometimes-hostile, very alienating sexism on display, especially on the internet.
In November of 2012, many people on Twitter, including myself, watched the explosion of Tweets tagged as #1ReasonWhy. This hashtag became alive with many stories from people- mostly women- in the video game industry and the sexism they have experienced, announcing “1 Reason Why” women may avoid the field. Many of the reasons brought up included things like being groped at software conventions, having their opinion written off because of their gender, being verbally attacked for mentioning gender issues in the industry, getting mistaken for receptionist or booth-babe rather than a developer, and having to remind everybody else that women play video games and like to play women characters in video games. (“Twitter 1reasonwhy tag,” )
For any woman keeping up with gender issues in the game industry, the backlash that is inevitable from any articles on potential sexism in the culture is responded with disrespectful, hateful comments towards the author and anyone who supports them. Beyond just software development, “geek culture” in general (usually including video games, comics, and traditionally nerd past-times) can be very toxic to women – from requiring women to prove their “nerd cred” (else be accused of being “fake” and doing it for attention), to being told to “Tits or GTFO” (Show us your tits or get the fuck out of here), to being told to “Get back in the kitchen”.
It is intimidating. Sometimes, as a woman online, it feels like the world is against you. It is easy to forget that there are also people who support us, and who do not think like that. We require an even more vocal and loud group of supporters to offset the perceived mob of people who simply don’t want us around, and definitely do not want us to have a voice.
There are also those who cannot empathize, and shame those who bring up issues as being “too sensitive” when they don’t understand where the concerns are coming from.
The title of this paper is BNE, a MIPS Assembly command for “branch on not equal”. Essentially this means, if x ≠y then branch to a new path – do something different. There are a lot of variables present in the equation of getting women into computer fields, it could be easy to become disillusioned with analysis paralysis. But we still need to investigate what can be done – individually and on institutional levels, to balance the equation and make sure that women are not unnecessarily turned away from a field they would like to pursue.
There are already initiatives that have been created to support women, as well as introduce both girls and boys to the world of programming and technology. Just to name a few, there are conferences such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Missouri Iowa Nebraska and Kansas Women in Computing (MINKWIC), there are website initiatives like Girls who Code, Code.org, and Black Girls Code, and there is a push to introduce programming in schools through FIRST Robotics, MIT’s Scratch software, and programming classes at the high school level.
I believe that every kid should be introduced to programming – just as every kid gets a chance to paint with watercolors, draw with crayons, play an instrument, build with Lego, and perhaps even experiment with a chemistry set. Whether at home or at school, we should encourage software like Scratch, Greenfoot, Alice, or even LOGO to be available for children to experiment with, even before the high-school age.
We need more visible role-models. This can be women in TV shows who are concerned with their careers and technology rather than with breaking nails and shopping, it can be women in the field more prominently showcased. In documentaries and discussions about technology, women are usually overlooked. You can find many documentaries about video games that completely contain only men (and, usually, all white men at that!)
For women who are active in technology, I would encourage you to be as visible as you are comfortable with. Blogging is a great way to share ideas about the field, news, development methods, events, and more. Podcasting, making vlogs, and more are all ways to put yourself out there to be more visible for girls and women to see.
Additionally, we should strive to mentor younger women and girls in technology. For example, Google has the Summer of Code event every year to help the development of Open Source projects. Mentors can sign up to guide students in their work over the summer. We can also seek out the initiative programs and volunteer to help out.
Empathy can be greatly lacking when it comes to challenges women (and minorities) face in tech fields. Empathy means understanding the feelings of another, understanding their point of view. By being conscious about the challenges to women in computer science fields, we can make better decisions.
One example would be the way many tech companies try to be appealing to early-20s male programmers. Companies could try to pay more attention to the image they’re presenting, and try to be more appealing to a variety of people, while still looking like a great company to work for.
Additionally, this also means to push for work-life balance for every employee. Be aware of the “work-yourself-to-death” culture and push for more flexibility from your work, for everybody. Try to petition your business for childcare services, maternity and paternity leave, and dispel the idea that those who take time off are lesser employees.
Finally, being aware of stereotypes and calling people out on their perceptions and actions is also important. Some people may not think they’re being sexist with a compliment or concern for another, so it may require pointing it out to them.
And as women, we have to be aware of the glass ceiling and try to be diligent about asking for promotions, raises, and recognition for our work. We can research average wages via the internet to try to make sure we’re being compensated fairly. Glassdoor.com, for example, allows employees of a company anonymously review and mark their salary.
Fighting an entire culture or meme can be a difficult thing to do. The best advice I can think of would probably be to not discourage math and technology to our kids and students. Rather than telling your child, “Sorry, I can’t do algebra” when they ask for help, sit down with them, read through the chapter they’re currently on, and try to find a lesson for that topic online. Don’t just shrink away – teach them a valuable life skill! That skill is, sometimes the resources you’re given aren’t good enough, but you can go out and find more and learn on your own.
Refrain from talking about math and computers with fear, anxiety, or hatred. Even if it’s just bravado, remember that you should be conveying that math may be difficult, but it is still possible to do and there are plenty of resources out there.
Additionally, we need to stop telling our girls that they’re somehow less capable at math than boys. There have been many studies recently that even point out that the difference between boys and girls in math is negligible. Encourage everybody to pursue science, math, and technology – it’s not a “boy’s thing”, it’s for everyone.
There is a perception that working with computers is an inherently anti-social task. Many people also do not enjoy the idea of a desk job or working in a cube farm and want to be more active during the day.
The preconception that software development and tech work is anti-social is definitely false. Software is a very complex thing, and in the world of software, web, and game development, teams of people with various skills are required. This can be fellow programmers, the Quality Assurance people, artists, customers, managers, and more.
The desk job and cubicle, however, is normal in the software development world. Some companies will provide access to gyms or other means of getting away from your desk, but software development is still a very sedentary job, and may not be suited to everybody.
Almost all software development jobs for corporations are full-time, at-a-desk work, but that’s not the only type of development there is. If one were to work freelance, there would be more variety in their work, such as meeting with customers to iron out a specification. There are also other technology fields that require working with equipment hands-on, perhaps in a lab.
If nothing else, you can make it your own. You can write your own software, websites, games, and mobile apps to sell or sell advertising space with, and then it would be up to you on where you work and when!
With the concern over purpose and helping people while working in a computer field, there are plenty of ways one can contribute! Google has an Open Source software that helps people find lost loved ones after a disaster, technology can be used to make the world safer through self-driving cars and other things, there are games to simulate what it’s like to be autistic, and we can even write software to help teach!
Software development is a literal frontier, waiting for clever ways to apply it towards a goal. It is very likely that, no matter what cause you may find worthwhile, there is a way to use technology to help out that cause.
There are a lot of challenges facing girls and women who may want to pursue computers as a potential career, or even hobby. Discussion on why there aren’t more women in computer science, as well as debate over sexism in the field and related industries have really heated up over the years, but this is good. Discussion means that people are aware, and with more awareness and debate, our culture will shift and things will become better for everybody.
We can do our part to make sure that the computer science world is welcoming, even if we’re not part of the field ourselves. Sometimes the smallest things can matter, from what you say about math, to what kind of toy you buy for your niece’s birthday. Our culture is full of subtleties that take deep investigation to be able to read between the lines, and hopefully being aware of the messages we send will help us make a conscious decision as to what message we will send next.
Women in computing. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_computing
Women in science and engineering statistics – Earned bachelor’s degrees, by field and sex (1983-2002). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://sites.nationalacademies.org/pga/cwsem/PGA_049131
Most popular college degrees by gender. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.collegeatlas.org/top-degrees-by-gender.html
Twitter 1reasonwhy tag. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://twitter.com/search?q=#1reasonwhy
Etzkowitz, H. (2000). Athena unbound. Cambridge, UK: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in. Alfred A. Knopf.
Spiegel, A. (Performer) (2012). Struggle for smarts? how eastern and western cultures tackle learning [Radio series episode]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning
Etzkowitz, H. (2000). Athena unbound. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Looking for related reading? I don’t always suggest Reddit, but http://www.reddit.com/r/girlsgonewired has women in tech and frequently has articles and discussions about challenges like this.