October 18, 2018
Computer science, as a major, is starving for women.
Olivia Figueira, a sophomore computer science major in the School of Engineering at Santa Clara attests to this. “There are maybe seven to 10 other girls on average in my COEN classes,” she said. “It varies, but we are always a minority.”
This is due in part to the way computer science is marketed. The passivity towards young women is causing females around the world to bypass the major.
“In high school, there was a lack of encouragement for women to pursue careers or majors in STEM,” Figueira explained.
She shared that in her high school, boys “were encouraged to participate in STEMbased extracurriculars like Robotics and the Math Team, yet most girls were not, despite being at the same academic caliber. This created a ‘boys club’ within these activities and many of us [girls] felt extremely excluded from and discouraged from joining.”
As the co-president for Association for Computing Machinery – Women’s Chapter at Santa Clara (ACM-W), Figueira is very passionate about the topic of women in computer science and hopes to spread awareness and acceptance through her club and daily interactions.
She shared that while she never felt directly discriminated against, there was a “lack of encouragement for young and teenage girls,” making an “enormous difference regarding the major and career choices they will make.”
Figueira is not the only one noticing the disparities along gender lines in computer science.
As more women than ever graduate from college and enter the workforce, most fields are seeing an increase in women. This, however, is not the case for STEM careers and most prominently computer science.
According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women now constitute 57 percent of college graduates and half of the overall workforce in the U. S. Yet they only make up 17 percent of the computer science workforce. This number has been declining since the 1980s as computer science becomes an increasingly male-dominated field.
This lack of women is not due to biological differences in their abilities to comprehend material and demonstrate necessary skills. The women who have gone into the field have proved to be just as competent as any man. As a result, the lack of women in the computer sciences is not a problem of nature, but of nurture and social constructs.
The cause of this gender gap starts with the pipeline of women into the field. Girls systematically express less interest in computer science as early as high school, rarely taking computer science electives if offered.
In college, the trend continues with few women enrolling in computer science classes and majoring in the field, as Figueira noted.
The lack of women in computer science careers is not because they are being outcompeted by the men, but largely because they are not entering the competition to begin with.
In high school, girls make up almost half of all math and science AP test takers, constituting 48 percent of calculus AP test takers, 47 percent of chemistry, 58 percent of biology, according to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. By contrast, only 18 percent of computer science AP test takers are female.
The key difference here lies in the fundamental belief of ability that has been socially constructed.
Boys are more often encouraged to try computer science and reassured of their skills, whereas women are warned that it is a difficult and highly technical field. This aligns with Figueira’s experiences in high school with STEM-related extracurriculars.
The favoritism toward men has the unfortunate consequence of the computer sciences missing out on women’s skills and breakthrough knowledge.
It also means computer science is primarily creating technology that is not engineered for or concerned with half of the population, thus creating products that are only marketable to men.
For example, early voice recognizing systems were programmed to hear men’s voices, as they were the ones who designed and tested it, but the software did not hear or recognize female voices.
Additionally, when the iPhone 6 came out, Apple saw a disproportionate amount of men buying the phone and a significant lack in female purchases.
This is because the iPhone 6 is often too large for women’s hands and the smaller pockets in women’s pants.
To solve the problem, high schools should require computer science classes as part of their curriculum.
By equally exposing and encouraging both girls and boys to pursue computer science, we can slowly close the gender gap that is contributing to massive oversights in a very prominent, emerging field.
Colleges can continue this trend of exposure and encouragement by neutralizing the environment surrounding computer science courses.
Harvey Mudd, a private college that specializes in STEM majors, found that if they take down Star Wars posters, science fiction books and technology magazines from the classrooms, females feel more comfortable in the environment, which promotes better learning.
Additionally, Harvey Mudd has found that if they removed the word “programming” from the title of their courses, more females were likely to take the course. These two small changes proved to be very effective.
In just four years, the number of computer science majors jumped from 10 percent to 40 percent.
Implementing these small changes could be an easy way to encourage more women to join the field.
At Santa Clara, the ACM-W club is taking steps to help women in computer science feel included in a male-dominated field. This includes introducing students to local female mentors, attending women in tech conferences and participating in the Women’s March.
Women are half of the population with half of the world’s brain power. We need to take the proactive steps to get computer science classes into high school curriculums and reduce the stigma at universities surrounding the male-dominated major. Only once we have reduced the pipeline issues of women coming into computer science, will the field reach its full potential.
Sahale Greenwood is a sophomore political science and communication double major.