What's driving women out of computer science?

What's driving women out of computer science?

Summary: When it comes to higher education, women have achieved parity with men in almost every technical pursuit...except computer science.


What’s driving women out of computer science?When it comes to higher education, women have achieved parity with men in almost every technical pursuit...except computer science.

With all science and engineering fields considered, the percentage of bachelor’s degree recipients who are women has improved to 51 percent in 2004-5 from 39 percent in 1984-85, according to National Science Foundation surveys.

But when one looks only at computer science, the proportion of women has been falling: In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent, according to an article in the New York Times.

NYTimes.com: Widening GapIt gets worse: According to the Computing Research Association, women accounted for only 12 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science and engineering in the U.S. and Canada granted in 2006-7 by Ph.D.-granting institutions, down from 19 percent in 2001-2.

And, according to the Times, many computer science departments report that women now make up less than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates.

So what happened?

Some people, such as Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern's Center for Technology and Social Behavior, say that girls don't want to inherit the "geek" mantle.

"The girls game movement failed to dislodge the sense among both boys and girls that computers were 'boys' toys' and that true girls didn't play with computers," according to Cassell in the Times.

Others say that women are more drawn toward computer-related fields such as Website design that aren't true, traditional computer science -- even through the pay is considerably less than, say, software engineering. Another theory is that women are drawn to fields such as nursing because it's easier to get a job in that field.

Either way, there's a broad disparity between the sexes when it comes to CompSci. With tech and engineering hot "sexy" majors again, can we turn the trend around?

What do you think? Are we failing to introduce computer science to women at a young age, or is there some greater social force behind the difference? Tell us in TalkBack.

Topics: CXO, Hardware, IT Employment

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Apples and oranges

    You start by comparing "all engineering disciplines" from 1984 to present, then look at current trends in CS.

    This totally misrepresents the fact that [b]current[/b] female enrollment in the other disciplines is also falling.

    Either compare CS in 1984 to CS today along with the others, or present the others' current trends. Otherwise it's impossible to make a valid comparison.

    NB: This is a family member's research topic, so it gripes me no end to see it so badly presented.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Check your own reality

    Not sure who or what drove you to report this, but from my
    view, there are at least 4:1 f:m in my comp sci domain. And
    let me tell, they are man-eaters. Any time I even think about
    adding folks to my staff, they hand me another problem to
    solve which pushes things back. I'm not fresh out of college
  • Long hours with no social interaction

    That might cause a woman who wants children or a high society life to think twice about a computer job.

    How does this compare with say automotive engineering? Maybe some women dont want to get their hands dirty or dirty in general? Most tech jobs start from a grunt position.

    Just a few thoughts to ponder....

    BTW: More and more chicks are playing computer games... so i think that stigma will be dead shortly.
    • Social Substitutes

      I not sure there are that many female gamers. I saw some numbers for MMORPGs once that said a large percentage of female characters were actually dudes. Not so many females play male characters.

      If a girl isn't interested in cars when she's young, she's not going to think about becoming an automotive engineer. Are you dads (and moms) out there encouraging your daughters as well as your sons to learn how to change their own oil and spark plugs?
  • RE: What's driving women out of computer science?

    I would love to see a chart which breaks out the ratios if you count American citizens vs foreign students to see if there is a cultural component. If the difference is primarily with our foreign guests, we can stop worrying about it.
  • Meh, more money for me... nt

  • Hmm. I wonder if these point to a symptom.

    Man-eaters? chicks? *L*

    However, at this site there are no women in technical side of the department. On the application support side they are heavily in the majority, however, less than one percent have a degree that is related to computer science.
  • Simple: Women are smarter than men.

    Why try for a career in a field where you compete against slave-wage foreign workers, boys who work insane hours because they have no social lives, and bosses who expect you to be on-call 24 hours a day and answer all emails within 5 minutes whatever the hour?

    It's not so strange that women are abandoning the field, the strange part is why so many men are clinging to it!
    terry flores
  • Can't say I miss them.

    Now, if only we could get rid of all the useless secretaries that hard working engineers support.
    • You have secretaries?? There aren't 4 left in our company!

      There are a number of "executive assistants" and "administrators" who have no direct reports and whose jobs entail lots of ass-kissing, but not many secretaries who actually do anything useful like answering a phone.
      terry flores
    • Clearly you mean useless women that men support...

      This article is about WOMEN and MEN not about
      secretaries and engineers. There are so many things
      wrong with your comment, not the least of which is
      that you seem to assume that women can't do
      engineering and are only good at 'useless' secretarial
      work. As a female engineering student myself, I have
      to laugh in your face because I'm good at what I do.
      Honestly, I'm not so much offended at your sexism as I
      feel bad for you that you're so backwards as to
      actually believe that women are stupid.

      The second issue that I have is that secretaries are
      useless. I'm going to assume that you're a technical
      person, since you obviously hold administration is
      such disdain. So, how about your fire every
      administrative person in the company where you work,
      and then you can deal with every little thankless task
      around the office that secretaries do! I'm sure you'll
      get lots of your important engineering work done with
      no one around to do all that stuff for you. What makes
      you a good engineer is EXACTLY what would make you a
      horrible secretary: you can focus your attention on a
      single problem until it is solved. Good for you. Now
      try solving that problem while trying to schedule
      several appointments for different people without
      causing a conflict and keeping track of a 10 different
      things that 5 different people wanted you to remember,
      all while in the middle of filing papers, answering
      the phone and writing up a welcome letter to the new
      employee. That's the kind of thing secretaries do. So
      while they probably couldn't do whatever it is that
      you do, I'd like to see you last a week without an
      admin person around the office.
  • This Board Says it All

    Wow, to think it's 2008 and these attitudes are still rampant. Who in her right mind would want to work with people like these???!!!
  • Look In Any IT Department

    There's your answer.

    Next stupid question.
  • Women are genetically inclined towards other things

    I think it's getting to the point now, actually, where
    the feminist movement (demanding equality in
    everything) is starting to slow down. Women now feel
    like they have just as many opportunities as men do,
    so instead of fighting for a career in a field that
    they are told they can't work in (like comp sci, for
    example), women are taking the jobs that they want.

    It's a simple fact of life that women's brains are
    wired differently than men's and those difference will
    cause the majority of women to take interest in
    different things than the majority of men. There will
    always be those to break that mold (myself included),
    but the fact remains that women will go into certain
    fields because they're genetically predisposed to
    them. One of the major issues is that women have
    always been ahead of men in the development of their
    social skills, and so women find a need for
    socialization in their chosen career far more often
    than men (which is why so many of my female friends
    are going into business). Of course, taking one look
    at this board tells me exactly why women can't get the
    social environment they need in a technical
    environment like a dev team. That's not to say,
    though, that a social inclination would be a bad thing
    for an engineer or dev to have: quite on the contrary.
    It's just that a shift in conventional thinking about
    programming and programmers is going to have to occur
    before more women will see their personal traits as
    being valuable in a development setting.

    Now, concerning the rampant sexism apparent on this
    talkback board: thankfully, I can safely say that not
    all techies are chauvinistic jerks (as I work in a
    company with many gentlemanly software devs). All we
    have to deal with are the few and far between that
    actually believe the crap posted above.

    Now, here's my disclaimer: before anyone claims that
    I'm sexist, I am a woman in school for Systems Design
    Engineering with plans to develop AI for video games
    once I graduate. So no, I'm not saying that women
    can't do comp sci, I'm just saying that, based on the
    interests generally taken by women, most women don't
    want to do comp sci.
    • Nature vs. Nuture

      I agree that no matter what anybody says, females are different than men. But "genetically predisposed" to certain jobs? Nursing was originally dominated by men. What happened? A species-wide genetic mutation? Now it is acceptable for women to work, and their salaries are at least in the same ballpark.

      I graduated near the end of that big drop off in the 80's. I never heard or felt anything specific that made me feel I shouldn't be there. Although I do have to admit that hanging out with the guys who spent all their time indoors playing Empire on the mainframe wasn't appealing. It was a lot more fun over in the Physics Department.
  • RE: What's driving women out of computer science?

    Here's my equation for the issue:

    Persistant, rampant stereotypes + humanity's general aversion to change = gender imbalance in IT.

    It's quite simple when you get down to it. I'm one of those so-called "odd" females who everyone calls on to fix...well, everything. Even in my own, mostly male department, which is part of the overall corporate GIS division. That statement is not to say that none of them are capable, technically oriented individuals...all of them are. They ask me for help because it's in my nature to want to help. Maybe that's the kind of attitude we in IT need first, irrevelant of the male/female debate.

    At any rate, while there is a gender imbalance in my department, my co-workers are intelligent enough to not equate the imbalance with a lack of ability on my part. Once those of us in the IT field stop lumping those two related but SEPARATE issues, we can perhaps move forward and truly discover what it would take to encourgage more women to embrace IT as a career.
  • RE: What's driving women out of computer science?

    Why even ask the question? . . . whether or not intentional, it has the effect to stir up discontent and artificially create adversarial relationships among different groups (men vs. women, children vs. parents, one race vs. another, etc.) to expedite social breakdown of previously Christian societies.

    As things stand, a woman is at liberty to study Computer Science, and, my experience tells me that, once qualified, is at an advantage in landing jobs, if for no other reason than because no department, at least in a corporate setting, is considered sufficiently politically correct unless it has women in it, whether or not they are competent. The personnel departments are typically staffed by PC police types who will pressure any manager whose department does not include "enough" women.

    Pushing girls into careerism, Com Sci or whatever, presumes that that is the best, or only option for them. Ostracizing them or otherwise sniping at them for doing otherwise is even worse, and exposes the hatred of and malice against the Lord Jesus Christ that underlies feminism.

    Faithful Protestant Christians (those attempting to remain true to the Holy Scriptures), for one perspective, do not believe (and teach the contrary) that women are supposed to reject the task of keeping at home and raising children (family responsibilities) and go out into the work world to compete with the men. As as the pagan world does not seem to be willing or capable of comprehending, they (we) have a high view of this Biblical female responsibility, that of an influential role in shaping the next generation and helping her husband in fulfillment of his calling under God.