By Suzanne Weston
Until 1984, growth of women entering professions including physical sciences, law, medicine, and computer science was steady, but then something changed. After the introduction of personal computers, the percentage of women in computer science flattened and then plunged, even though the number of professional women kept rising.
Initially, personal computers were toys used for playing simple games, marketed directly to boys and men. While both genders are equally talented in logic and problem solving, boys were given computers more often than girls. And boys were more comfortable when teachers started using computers in the classroom.
Teachers have a significant influence on students’ decisions to study computer science. Students who receive positive reinforcement are three times more likely to go into computer science, and the window for making this impact occurs before age 14. Therefore, children need exposure to computers at a young age.
Is it realistic for both women and men to enter computer science and related fields?
Yes. Harvey Mudd College demonstrated that women are as capable as men in computer science (CS). They introduced CS courses with different names: “Introductory Java” became “Creative Problem-Solving in Science and Engineering Using Computational Approaches,” and changing the course name reduced intimidation due to lack of prior exposure. Classes were structured to become collaborative and team-oriented (which appealed to women who found the stereotypical loner geek programmer unappealing). The percentage of women in CS increased from 10 percent to 50 percent. The solution was to create an environment where women can flourish.
Why aren’t more women in computer science?
Women think differently than men. Because women want to avoid mistakes, they may become frustrated when their code does not work. Because men see learning programming as a trial-and-error process, they don’t see code not running as a reflection of their skills. Adding check-points to affirm success can build women’s confidence.
Since socialization and collaboration are important to women when selecting careers, they may feel isolation until more women enter the field. Women need role models. Programs like Girls Who Code address this gap. They encourage girls to take advanced placement (AP) classes in high school, which positions them to study technical disciplines in college. Seventy percent of students who took the AP exam say they want to work in computer science; this shows the importance of early exposure in framing career aspirations.
Attracting women to technology is the first step toward developing women in CS. The second step is building an inclusive culture that offers career advancement and encourages them to remain in CS. Women leave technology companies at twice the rate of men. Early intervention and education will begin to close the gap between women and men in CS. Female students who have visible, female role models in CS careers and receive encouragement from parents and teachers can increase the likelihood that they pursue additional CS courses and degrees (2017 Gallup poll). To thrive in business, women need a collaborative culture with role models.