by Sue Weston

Why aren’t more women in computer science?

Jun 04, 2018
IT Leadership IT Skills Staff Management

Women are equally qualified for careers in computer science and yet there is a shortage of professional talent. Learn how you can be part of the solution.

When you think of computer scientists what image comes to mind? Is it a man or a woman?

There was a steady growth of women entering professions including physical sciences, law, medicine and computer science until 1984 when something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the numbers of professional women kept rising. The event was the introduction of the personal computers, initially they were toys playing simple games which were marketing directly to boys and men. Even though both genders are equally talented in logic and problem solving, parents treated them differently. Boys were given computers more often than girls.  This made them more comfortable when teachers started using computers in the classroom.

Teachers have a large influence on students’ decision 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, it is important for children to be exposed to computers at a young age. But many schools need support of outside organizations, like TEALS to supplement the existing programs by providing computer curriculum and mentors.

Yes. Harvey Mudd College demonstrated that women are as capable as men in computer science. They introduced CS courses but changed the names, Introductory Java became Creative Problem Solving in Science and Engineering Using Computational Approaches. And focused on removing the intimidation factor, stemming from lack of prior exposure. They changed the classes to become collaborative and team oriented (which appealed to women) and challenged the stereotype of the loner geek programmer. The percentage of women in CS increased from 10% to 50% and Carnegie Mellon had similar success increasing the women pursuing CS from 7% to 40%. Part of the solution is to remove the stigma that coding is for men and create an environment where women can flourish.

Why aren’t more women in CS?

Women think differently and have a tendency to want to avoid mistakes and may be frustrated when their code does not work. “Men, on the other hand, are often more aware of the fact that learning programming is a trial-and-error process and don’t see code not running as a reflection of their own skills.” Adding check-points to affirm success can be helpful and build 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, and this gap is being addressed by programs like Girls Who Code as well as encouragement to take AP classes in High School to position them to study technical disciplines in college. 70% 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 which offers career advancement and encourages them to remain in CS. Women leave technology companies at twice the rate of men. Diversity and inclusion policies are being designed to focus on measuring the retention and advancement of women, but the challenge is to encourage women to consider a career in CS.

What is the solution?

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 likelihood that they pursue additional CS courses and degrees (2017 Gallup poll). Providing students with female role models in their formative years has been shown to perform better on standardized tests, which builds confidence. This is where Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) can be a game changer … TEALS is a national computer science education program that builds sustainable computer science programs in high schools by using volunteers from the tech industries to team-teach computer science programs. This educates the high school teachers, allowing them to learn or strengthen their knowledge of computer science while in the classroom. The students are introduced industry professionals who volunteer their time to teach computer science.  The TEALS partnership between educators, industry professionals and students, offers education, and inspiration by infusing professionals who have successful careers in computer science. These volunteers provide the students with the encouragement and passion they will need to succeed.

How can you help?

Apply to be a volunteer with TEALS. TEALS volunteers help fill the CS education gap for teachers and students alike. Volunteers provide CS expertise and classroom teachers provide educational expertise. Together, this creates the perfect partnership to teach CS in high schools. Over time, TEALS volunteers help classroom teachers teach CS independently and confidently. Our volunteers create a ripple effect that gives current and future students the opportunity to be innovators and creators of technology. The TEALS program is an ideal setting for CS professionals to use their highly-technical skillset to foster the next generation of inventors and coders.