Women In Tech: A Realistic Look at the Numbers

This post contains “just the facts” about women in tech. If you like, you can also read my opinion on the subject.

The tech industry is experiencing a shortage of good engineers, developers and other computer scientists. These are some of the best-paying and most fascinating jobs our economy can currently offer.

In general, more young people are being encouraged to enter this sector of our workforce; women in particular are being called for by special interest organizations. However, the hackers we need just aren’t showing up — especially the women.

Women in computer science and engineering have been on a steady and not-so-slow decline for the past two decades. It seems women’s interest in computer science peaked in the mid-eighties and has yet to recover. Some studies show we’re experiencing new lows for female enrollment in computer science education courses.

Let’s take a realistic look at women in tech by the numbers.

COMPUTER SCIENCE PROFESSIONS

Careers in software engineering and computer systems analysis are both considered to be in the top 10 jobs in America today, as ranked by a number of factors, including stress, weekly hours and salary. And according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, computer applications development is projected to be one of the fastest-growing professions of the current and next decade.

And although this high demand for computer programmers is well documented by the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in young people’s interest in computer and technology careers.

A representative of the National Science Foundation said that the number of computer science majors, regardless of gender, has dropped by 70% since 2000; the number of women in computer science degree programs has fallen by 80% over the past 10 years.

WOMEN IN COMPUTER SCIENCE DEGREE PROGRAMS

According to the U.S. Department of Education, for the class of 1999–2000 undergraduates, 11% of men and 2% of women majored in engineering, and 13% of men and 6% of women majored in computer science. Another study of 2007-2008 computer science students shows that in these programs, around 17.6% of students awarded bachelor degree are women.

We might wonder why this disparity exists in our current decade. After all, young women and girls in high school are “just as likely as males to use computers at home and at school,” according to one study from the Department of Education in 2005.

“However,” this study continues, “there is some evidence that at least some males leave high school with greater interest in and specialized knowledge of computers. For instance, males accounted for 86 percent of students who took the AP examination in computer science in 2002… Gender differences in majors still exist, with female bachelor’s degree recipients much less likely than their male peers to major in computer science, engineering, and physical sciences.”

Clearly and historically, this is not what we’d consider a pink-collar profession. But more disturbing than the low numbers of women enrolling in and graduating from computer science programs is the downward slide of women choosing these majors and professions. In fact, women are losing interest in computer science at a much greater rate than their male counterparts.

ThHE WIDENING GENDER GAP

Initially, after the 1970s and the second wave of the women’s movement, we saw an increase in the percentage of female students enrolling in computer science. Take a look at this graph representing the percentage of women in various majors between the class of 1970 and the class of 2001:


graph via the U.S. Department of Education

Now, a 13% to 28% jump seems like a sizable increase at the outset. But consider how this figure came to be.

In the 1980s, we saw a relatively huge number of women programmers and computer science students, almost to the point that we achieved a moment of near-parity in some parts of the country. In fact, at MIT in 1984, about the same percentage of men and women in the student body were majoring in computer science.

But this growth wasn’t consistent. According to a Department of Education report on gender equity, which showed the same 13% and 28% figures for 1970 and 2001, respectively, that latter number actually represents a drop from 1985, when women made up 37% of all computer science students.


graph via the U.S. Department of Education

These stats are also verified by the New York Times’ findings from a 2008 article:


graph via the New York Times

And according to the Computing Research Association, the same stats hold true. The national percentages of women in computer science and engineering majors plummeted throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

In 1995, Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department began an campaign to bring enroll more women in its undergraduate program. Their results were astounding after just five years’ effort.

“At that time, just 7% (7 out of 96) of entering freshman computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon were women. Five years later, the percentage of women in the entering class had increased fivefold. In 1999, women were 38% of the incoming first-year computer science class (50 out of 130)2; in the fall of 2000, approximately 40% of the entering class were women.”

It would seem that colleges’ and universities’ wooing more female would-be computer scientists and software engineers is one aspect of decreasing gender disparity in tech professions. But we also see that the divide begins earlier than college.

According to the stats we cited earlier in this article, young girls are quite the experts when it comes to using computers, particularly for communication. However, their male counterparts are the ones whose interest in computers translates to AP sciences and maths that relate to computers and choosing computer science as a major and later, a profession.

Therefore, we can only assume that at some point or another, we stopped encouraging young girls to think about computers as objects of study and science and started asking them to think of computers as tools for communication and consumption. Making computers part of mainstream life has had this effect on the entire computer science and technology industry; fewer young minds overall are less interested in how these things work than in how they can be adapted to the needs of the individual.

There’s no pancea for this problem, but the problem is evident enough and significant enough that we need to start looking for solutions as a community.

Image courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.

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