The 17% Problem: Why does the percentage of women in computer science stop there?
Women used to make up nearly 40% of computer science majors. Now, that number hovers under 20% despite numerous diversity initiatives. Where have all the female coders gone? The answer might surprise you.
Tech’s diversity problem is infamous. We’ve spent a lot of time exploring it with our Women in Tech series. But it wasn’t always this way for women in computer science. How did we get here?
Last year’s award winning Hidden Figures brought the story of NASA’s black “computers” to the big screen. The film focused on the female African-American mathematicians who helped get astronauts to the moon. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were all pioneers in the space industry in the 1960s.
For a time, it seemed like the path they created was widening and growing for all the women who followed. And then, something strange happened in the 1980s.
Take a look at the red line. Look at how it peaks at roughly 34% in 1984. And watch how it craters after that.
What happened in the 1980s?
The first computers were beginning to trickle out into the public for general use in the 1980s. The Commodore 64 and the Apple Macintosh were both released in the early 1980s, bringing computers into the home. Computers weren’t cheap. A Commodore 64 costs roughly $1500 dollars in today’s money and an Apple Macintosh would set you back a cool $5,763 today.
The original computers were pretty limited in scope. You could play Pong or maybe do some word processing, but that was about it. And who were families buying these incredibly expensive personal computing machines for?
Well, most of the original marketing for computers was aimed at men and boys. And research shows that families were more likely to buy computers for their sons than daughters.
As time went on, computer science professors began to assume that all of their students had a basic understanding of computers coming into introductory classes. For boys who grew up with computers, this was not a problem. But for girls, it meant less and less of them got over that initial hurdle.
And so, as the graph shows, the number of women in computer science decreased into the state we find ourselves in today.
You can’t be what you don’t see
The “home computers for boys and not girls” is a compelling theory. But, there could be another reason why there are so few women in computer science.
Take a good look at the next movie or TV show you watch. Next time the camera pans over a crowd scene, hit pause and do some basic counting. How many women are in the shot and how many men?
The answer might shock you.
According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, for every female character shown on screen, there are three male characters. Crowd and group scenes in films contain only 17% women. “The ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946,” Geena Davis points out. This shows up in media for all ages, whether it’s for children or adults.
“We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space,” writes Davis. “Couldn’t it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that’s the ratio we’ve come to see as the norm?”
It’s funny because the current number of women in computer science majors is 16.5%.
As any scientist knows, correlation does not imply causation. There could be any number of reasons why women are so underrepresented in computer science. But it’s something interesting to think about all the same.