You may be wondering why should you – or any of us – care about women in the computing industry. And the answer is simply because it is essential to us as a society and the wider global economy. Gender diversity has an immediate impact on the success of technological development, which Nora Denze demonstrated with these fascinating examples during her keynote speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2012:
Car Air Bags… “When they were first developed, all the team members were men. So when they came to deciding how big the air bag should be, when it deploys, where it goes – they went to a weight and height chart of a standard man. When the first air bags came out in the first cars they had unintended side effects, they actually killed women and children because they were not calibrated properly.”
NGO Project… “A number of engineering teams which included Civil Engineers, Chemical Engineers, Computer Scientists were sent into 15 different countries with an outcome to fix unreliable access to clean water. Where women had been included in the technical and interviewing team, the project had a higher probability of success and lasted longer. It turned out that in most countries where water was unreliable, it was the women’s work to collect water from the source and bring it back to the village. Therefore women in the village had a wealth of knowledge, they knew where best to place the water. Where some of the teams had only talked to the head male, who had said ‘don’t talk to the women, we know better’, the project had failed.”
So the reason we care and why we want the computing industry to be 50/50 is because gender diverse teams make better decisions.
The facts and the future
In the computer science field or any job related, within the first 10 years 52% of women drop out all or change profession altogether. If the employment figures continue to fall as abruptly as the enrollment figures might forecast, then the computing workforce will soon become one of the most gender-segregated professional environments. Consequently, “computing might return to its gender composition of the 1960s,” (1) whilst in parallel the rest of the world moves forward.
What is unusual about computer science is that the representation of women undergraduates has been falling steadily for 20 years and this trend shows no signs of reversing. Other science fields have seen temporary drops, “but none experienced a decline of this size and duration and if it continues at the rate experienced from 1986 to 2006, there will be no women bachelor degree graduates in computer science by 2032.” (1)
The history and it’s influence
It wasn’t always this way, that’s for sure.
“Beginning in the mid 1960s women entered the emerging computing profession and did so in unusually large numbers.” (1)
Increased female participation across all STEM professions is believed to have been a reflection of the feminist movement and given that computer science was a new and expanding field, women viewed it as a frontier in which the rules had not been entirely set, where opportunity in a professional career laid.
Then something unprecedented happened in the computing sector in the mid-1980s:
“Not merely did women stop entering computing in large numbers, but the proportion of women studying computing actually began falling”. (1)
There are a number of complex and multi-layered theories of why this happened, and through my research and reading the incredibly fascinating book ‘Gender Codes‘ edited by Thomas J. Misa, I have summarized the conclusions made:
- Misleading Media: Media has played a large role, amplifying masculine images of computing. The advertisements in computing are even less gender balanced than the actual practices of computing. It is no coincidence that the change in the mid-1980s paralleled the emergence of male nerds in popular culture, as well as the rise of distinctly gendered computer gaming, now a multi million dollar industry. Like Karen Coyle said, “Women are obligated to adopt some degree of macho to become part of the computing world.” (1)
- Negative Stereotypes: The “computer science geek” is usually portrayed as an antisocial, white male, highly intelligent/skilled, who pays little attention to the way he looks or his personal hygiene for that matter. This image is not attractive to either sex, but in particular women.
- Exclusion from networking: A study on the ‘Status Of Women Faculty in Science’ at MIT found that female junior faculties were rarely included in the informal networks and mentoring relationships that their male counterparts were able to benefit from.
- Gender discrimination: Thomas Haigh examines occupational data and finds strong evidence of gender marked employment, for instance moving up the salary ladder – from key punch workers (at the bottom) through computer operators, programmers and system analysts (at the top) – he finds remarkable consistency in that, “the proportion of women drops and the average pay rises.”
- Lack of exposure to role models: It surprised me the number of prominent women who led research teams, defined computer languages, and even pioneered the history of computing. Grace Hopper, Elizabeth Jake Feinler, Fran Allen, Barbara Leskov, the list goes on. Yet despite this list of notable women in computing our society came to think that women just don’t like computing.
‘Gender Codes‘ (the book I encourage you all to read) puts it perfectly:
“When set in context against the other STEM disciplines, computer science is an extreme of both sides of the spectrum – being both the fastest growing and declining in various time periods, with respect to the representation of women.”
So the question is: what can we do about it now?
- We need to support organisations such as the awesome ‘Stemettes’, which Anne-Marie started after being one of only 3 girls in a class of 70 studying Maths and Computer Science at her University. Their vision: All girls will be able to make informed decisions about careers in STEM fields so that eventually women can be proportionally represented in the field. We can then have 30%+ of the UK’s STEM workforce being female, as opposed to just 14%!
- We need an image makeover to bring gender balance to computer science. We need more positive female images of computing to be circulated to change public view. Whilst directly influencing the computing images that advertisers and Hollywood can be difficult, art can be a great vehicle for changing perceptions and we have online platforms to change attitudes. Such as blogs like this, YouTube and even around campuses.
- Educate others: Share this podcast, ‘When Women Stopped Coding‘, and share this article!
If you are in the computing industry or are thinking about a career in it, watch the video below (from 26 mins in) for 5 tips on how to stay in and represent women:
Written by Rebecca Woolford.
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- ‘Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing‘, edited by Thomas J. Misa.