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What Happened to All the Women in Computer Science?

The low numbers of female computer science majors may have roots in the mid-1980s and the rise of personal computers

Computer engineers working on Cray Supercomputers in 1983 (Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

In 1833, seventeen-year-old Ada Lovelace met Charles Babbage at a party, where the mathematician introduced the young woman to his clockwork calculating machine. In Babbage's words, Lovelace was able to grasp "the most abstract of Science...with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it." Working with Babbage and his machine earned her a spot in computing history—as the first computer programmer.

But in the years since Lovelace and other pioneering programmer women did their work, the gender imbalance in computer science has become wide: The National Center for Education Statistics reports that women made up just 18 percent of undergraduate computer science majors in 2010-2011.

As recently as 1983-1984, though, that number was 37 percent. In fact, the proportion of female computer science majors rose steadily along with the proportion of women enrolling in programs for medical school, law school and the physical sciences through the early 1980s. But in 1984 the percentage of women in computer science plunged—just look at the graph NPR’s Planet Money created to get a sense of the dramatic drop.

What happened? The answer isn’t straightforward, but Planet Money's hosts lay out some potential contributing factors. In the early and mid-1980s, personal computers entered the home. But these Commodore 64s, Radio Shack TRS-80s and others were marketed to boys. As NPR reports, you couldn’t do much with these early computers, and they were sold as toys—machines to play games on. 

This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were and it created techie culture.

So computers entered the category of "boys' toys." Having access to and familiarity with these machines gave boys a leg up in entry-level programing classes. Women in these classes were learning programming for the first time, while men were honing skills they had been developing for years. "I remember this one time I asked a question and and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, 'You should know that by now," Patricia Ordóñez, who attended Johns Hopkins University in the early 1980s. "And I thought 'I am never going to excel.'"

Research suggests the snowballing of this effect is a big part of the gender imbalance story. Sapna Cheryan, a psychologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, has investigated how classrooms decorated with typical "geek" objects—Star Wars posters, computer parts, Coke cans—might make women feel like they don’t belong. Her work shows that women in these rooms rate themselves as less interested in computer science than men do. The effect disappeared in more neutrally decorated rooms that featured plants and nature photos, reports Lisa Grossman for Science Notes

Some universities are working hard to turn this trend around. At the University of California Berkeley, one introductory computer science class has started to enroll more women than men with by changing its name and adding lessons that tie programming in to its context in the world. For example, each class opens with discussion of a recent tech article in the media. "Everything that turns women off, we reversed it," professor Dan Garcia told The San Francisco Chronicle

Making that dipping line on the NPR graph climb up again is important. The demand for skilled computer engineers is high. Given current trends, about one million computing jobs have no students in the pipeline to fill them. We’ll need women to fill the gap.

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