Why We Need More Women in Computer Science

Why aren’t more women breaking barriers in computer science? Turns out information technology consistently ranks as one of the best employment fields – especially for women. If you have your sights set on a six figure income, consider a career in software development, information security or computer systems.

Annual wages can start at $85,000 and climb well over $100,000. A new study by Accenture and Girls Who Code – a national non-profit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology – reveals that by 2025, the number of jobs created in this sector will be three times the national average.

The demand is there. The wages are competitive yet there are just not that many women in computer science right now.

Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows 37% of undergraduate computer science students were women in 1984. By 2014, roughly 18% of students were women.

This means women used to dominate the computing field. So what happened?

Telle Whitney, President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, credits the movie, “Hidden Figures” for helping to draw attention to this issue.

“I enjoyed the movie and its story on perseverance and ultimate success,” Whitney tells HER Magazine in an interview.

“In the early age of computer science, computers were considered clerical work, so women were often recruited.”

When she was a young computer scientist, Whitney was surrounded by women. “In fact, my first programming teacher was a woman, and women graduate students were very common – at this time, companies were desperate to find anyone with math skills.”

Seismic Shift

However, during the 1980s, the personal computer grained popularity and computer science became mainstream. According to Wendy DuBow, a senior researcher and the Director of Evaluation at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the perception began to change. It was no longer an industry dominated by women; it was an industry for men.

“In the popular imagination, men began to be directly associated with computer science expertise and skills – even though historically women, black and white, had been the “computers,” she says.

And DuBow believes this had an impact on the perception, recruitment, and acceptance of more women in the field.

“In general, masculinizing an occupation has often been an effective strategy for ‘professionalizing’ or artificially raising the status of that occupation,” DuBow tells HER Magazine, “In addition, men have a greater tendency to go into high-paying professions, which computing came to be.”

It’s a change that Whitney witnessed first-hand. “As computer science departments grew and the field became more prestigious, the industry looked to other engineering disciplines, which consisted of mostly men.”

And this sentiment is echoed by Jane Chappell, Vice President of Global Intelligence Solutions at Raytheon. “The shift taking women away from computer science, to me, came about as it became viewed as a more mainstream field grouped with math, science and engineering – all traditionally male-dominated fields.”

For Chappell – who majored in computer science years ago, and now leads a technology and innovation company that specializes in cybersecurity, defense, and civil government – the shift is cause for concern.

Even for the women who were already in the field, career advancement moved at a snail’s pace – when it moved at all. “The societal bias against women in any field being in high-earning, top leadership positions permeated this rapidly growing profession,” says DuBow, who adds, “The societal bias against women of color holding positions of power in an influential, high-paying industry is even more inhibiting.”

Leveling the Playing Field

So how do we get more women back into computer science?

“We can reverse this gender shift by encouraging educational institutions to support change within their organizations, so that women have the chance to learn about and create technology, ultimately increasing presence and participation of women in computer science,” says Whitney.

And some schools are taking the lead in this area.

Leah Busque graduated from Sweet Briar in 2001 with a degree in math and computer science. She is the Founder, former CEO and current executive chairwoman of the service networking site TaskRabbit, and also serves on Sweet Briar’s board of directors. Busque tells HER magazine that although there’s been a decline in the number of women receiving computer science degrees, some schools have experienced an enrollment increase.

“Both Stanford University and Harvey Mudd College are examples of institutions that have gone against this trend and are making real headway against these numbers,” says Busque.

“Maria Klawe, President of HMC, has made it a personal focus of hers to drive more women and minorities into CS degrees at the college – she achieved this through multiple tactics, including reconstructing curriculum and utilizing nontraditional recruitment strategies for high school applicants.”

And Busque says her own school, Sweet Briar, has been inspired by these institutions and is committed to increasing the number of women in the technology industry. “We are positioned uniquely: because we are solely dedicated to the education of women, we can be at the forefront of driving positive change in these numbers.”

Sweet Briar recently created its computer science program from the ground up. “We’re utilizing proven strategies at other schools, and also incorporating our own best practices around the integration of liberal arts, fostering community, and incorporating social impact components into the classroom,” says Busque.

She also believes that the importance of positive role models cannot be overemphasized.

“Role models have always been an important influence in my life and career, because you can’t be what you can’t see,” says Busque. “Creating this program means continuing to graduate many more accomplished leaders for the next generation to be inspired by, and this is an important way we can change these numbers over time.”

Programs like Sweet Briar’s and those at Stanford and Harvey Mudd help to change the notion that computer science is only for men.

“One problem that has existed for decades is the false notion that girls aren’t supposed to be good in math and science – and unfortunately, I know from talking with my students that such negative societal influences still exist to this day,” says Stephen R. Wassell, Sweet Briar’s Computer Science Program Director.

He tells HER Magazine, “Of course, our students and graduates in STEM fields completely dispel this myth on a regular basis.”

It appears that the number of women in computer science declined, primarily, based on the perception of what these professionals should look like.

However, Rachael Stedman, Engineering Manager at Lever, tells HER Magazine, “Today, I think we strive for something different – not just changing the perception of the job of a software engineer, etcetera, but actually changing the way we think about gender and race, no longer using gender and race as boxes that define what jobs we can and cannot do.”

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